Why did Jesus come to earth? What was the purpose of the incarnation? Certainly, the incarnation of Christ was a complex event, having many effects that have rippled throughout history. However, often we grasp at individual aspects of the result of Christ’s life, ministry, vicarious death, and resurrection. In this case, the incarnation often becomes nothing more than a means to an end; Jesus had to be born so that he could die on the cross. Christmas is the means to Easter.
In no way do I mean to diminish the cross, it indeed is the lynch pin that all of history swings on. Without it we have no hope. Rather, my point is to elevate the life and ministry of Christ, the incarnation, to its rightful place in our understanding of the Christian life. Jesus was not randomly roaming around for 30 years waiting to die and performing a few miracles along the way simply to prove who he was. The incarnation is much more significant than that.
To begin to fully grasp the significance of the incarnation it will be helpful to see what Mary, the mother of Jesus, understood it to mean. This becomes abundantly clear in a passage of scripture referred to as The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56). However, the key to understanding this text comes a little earlier in the chapter. In Luke 1:26-38 the angel Gabriel visits Mary and tells her that she will bear a son, but not just any son. She will give birth to the Son of the Most High; the long anticipated heir to the throne of David. As promised, his kingdom (reign) will be eternal (Luke 1:31-33).
To grasp the magnitude of this promise it is essential to understand the Old Testament concept of new exodus. In the first exodus God delivered the Hebrew people from the bondage and oppression of the Egyptians. Through this process the nation of Israel was birthed to be kings and priests mediating God’s reign on the earth (Exodus 19:4-6). They were a corporate Adam whom God would work through to bring all of creation under his sovereign reign; as He originally intended (Gen 1:26-28).
Unfortunately, Israel continued in sin and, like Adam, was exiled from their Eden. They were taken into captivity in Babylon, however the prophets spoke of a new exodus that would be more comprehensive than the first (Is. 35; 43:16-21; 51:9-11; 65:17-25). God’s people would be delivered from captivity and would return to the Promised Land where the presence of God would dwell among them in the Temple. Further, with this exodus the curse on creation would be lifted, death and disease would be defeated, and bondage in all its forms would be eradicated; including bondage to Satan and sin as well as physical and political oppression.
When God’s people were released from captivity and returned to the land, what they found was nothing like what the prophets had promised. They found Jerusalem in ruins and faced great opposition in their efforts to rebuild the Temple and the city. They also faced famine and as a result suffered greatly. Furthermore, though they were in the land, they never possessed it like they once had. As a result, they saw their return as only a partial fulfillment of the new exodus the prophets had promised. Their return from exile was not complete and they longed for the fullness of the new exodus deliverance that would come when the son of David once again sat upon the throne in Jerusalem.
For hundreds of years Israel waited for their promised deliverance. They suffered under political and demonic oppression. They longed for the righteous reign of God to manifest itself in their lives. This was especially true of the poor and needy who suffered worst of all. It was in this context that Gabriel visits Mary.
When she heard that she would give birth to the Son of the Most High who would finally bring the fullness of the new exodus that had been prophesied, Mary could not help but rejoice. This is exactly what we see in Luke 1:46-56. Mary knew that God was intervening in history and that the new creation Israel had longed for was finally coming to be! Christmas was about God’s kingdom invading earth and all things being made new (Is. 43:18-19).
Thus Mary begins her song of praise by reflecting on who God is, her Savior (vs. 46-47). In light of what has been discussed above, God as Savior must be understood in a comprehensive way. The salvation Mary envisions is the fullness of the new exodus; the restoration of creation, defeat of Satan and the overturning of his kingdom, deliverance from sin and death, and restoration of fellowship with God. It is for this that she magnifies the Lord and rejoices will all of her being.
One of the key things to understand in this passage is that the kingdom of God turns the kingdom of the Satan (the world) upon its head. They are polar opposites of one another. In reference to the kingdom, Jesus repeatedly makes it clear that in his kingdom the last will be first and the first will be last (Matt 19:16-30; 20:1-16, 20-28). This is demonstrated by the King himself as he humbly serves humanity (2 Cor 8:9, Phil 2:5-8). In Satan’s kingdom the powerful and the strong are exalted while the weak are oppressed. Under the reign of Jesus the meek and humble reign with him while the mighty are brought low. This reality is seen throughout Mary’s song of praise.
It is seen first in vs. 48 when Mary makes reference to her “humble estate.” This term not only reflects the humility of her spirit, but it also reflects her social status. She was not from an important family with power and prestige. Quite the opposite, she was a poor peasant girl. One might imagine the Son of the Most High would be born to a great family in a beautiful palace; not to a poor couple in a stable.
Mary never seeks to rob God of his glory. She knows that the favored position she will hold is only because mighty God has chosen to bless her (vs. 49). She will be called blessed forever because of the special blessing the Lord has given her. It is sad that the blessing of God has been twisted and led to two differing false views of Mary. The Catholic Church has misunderstood Mary’s role and venerated her to a position she never belonged. The Protestant church, going to the other extreme, has marginalized her into oblivion so that she is only occasionally mentioned in a Christmas sermon.
In the second half of her song Mary switches focus from what God has done for her to what God has and will do for Israel. She quotes or alludes to numerous Old Testament passages about God’s work for Israel. However, the context of her praise is the in breaking of the kingdom of God into history, the fulfillment of the new exodus. Though she speaks in past tense, quoting scripture, she is also prophesying in new exodus language about the coming kingdom of God. Thus, we see in the remainder of the song not only what God has done, but what he will do.
Here we see how the kingdom of God turns the kingdom of Satan upside down. God will show mercy on the meek that fear him (vs. 50). He will bring down the proud and will humble the mighty, while exalting the humble (vs. 51-52). The hungry will be filled with good things and the rich will be sent away empty (vs. 53) (Luke 16:19-31; 18:18-30). This is what the kingdom of God looks like. It is indeed good news for the poor (Luke 4:18; 14:12-24; 19:1-10).
To be sure there are spiritual aspects to these verses. We are to be humble in spirit and hunger for God spiritually, but we dare not rob Mary’s praise of its full intent. A proper understanding of new exodus and the kingdom of God will not allow it. We want to spiritualize what she is saying and rob it of all physical/temporal implications because it makes us uncomfortable. After all, we are the rich and powerful that may be humbled and sent away empty. The kingdom of God turns the world upside down and it must likewise turn our worlds upside down as well. We can’t marginalize Mary’s words; we must do the hard work of applying them to our lives today.
The kingdom that is coming through the birth of Jesus is the result of the promise that God made to Abraham and his offspring (vs. 54-55). Through the sovereign reign of Jesus the Israel of God will be delivered and all the nations of the earth will be blessed. This is the hope of the incarnation! This is what Christmas means to Mary. The kingdom is here like a mustard seed, but like leaven it will spread until the long awaited promise of new exodus is fully realized.