Earlier this year, Andreas Köstenberger and his organization (biblicalfoundations.org) were gracious enough to give me a copy of his new book with Alexander Stewart, The First Days of Jesus: The Story of the Incarnation (Crossway, 2015). I promised to write a review of the book on my blog. So, since I didn’t exactly have a blog, I’ve created one.
America has hijacked Christmas. Introducing the book, the authors ask what images we see when we think of Christmas. For you it is probably some mixture including but not limited to some combination of Santa Claus, caribou, indoor evergreens, malls, toys, food, lights, music, movies, and (ideally) snow. Köstenberger and Stewart say — and they are correct — that “Christmas, as celebrated by Americans, is a cultural, not a religious holiday. If Jesus were to be completely removed from the equation, Americans could continue to celebrate Christmas with hardly any interruption” (16).
All holidays take on unique features in their culture, and we needn't do away with all of our American Christmas traditions. But as Christians we should strive to make Christmas about Jesus, and this book will help you do that. If we are to make Christmas about Jesus, we must rediscover its true meaning. This means going back to the sources, returning to the message of the incarnation of Jesus found in the scriptures: the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. Köstenberger and Stewart also wisely include in their discussion the prologue of the fourth gospel, which is beautiful prose about the Word which “became flesh” (see John chapter 1). In Matthew, Luke, and John is the message of the good news that God came to save us. That is what Christmas is all about.
Köstenberger and Stewart are master guides, helping us to understand the events surrounding the birth of Jesus and their significance. They say, “A careful reading of the New Testament infancy narratives in their historical context will help you separate fact from fiction and clear away the brush so you can truly encounter and be changed by the Christ of Christmas.”
Reading the stories of Jesus’ birth often leave us with questions. Have you ever wondered why Jesus’ genealogies in Matthew and Luke are significant, or the significance of Jesus’ name? Have you wondered how Jesus’ birth fulfills scripture or what John means when he calls Jesus the “Word”? Köstenberger and Stewart answer these questions about the birth narratives and many others.
This book may also ruin your manger scenes. Sorry. For example, did you know that Jesus was probably born in a cave, not a stable? Who knows how many magi there were, but it was almost certainly more than three! Also, Jesus was born about 5 B.C. (But, you say, how could he be born five years before Christ?!)
What’s more, The First Days of Jesus will likely give you insight into the Christmas story that you’ve never even seen. For my part, one thing that I saw differently was the magi’s visit to Herod. The authors reminded me that Herod the Great came to power over Roman Palestine by defeating the Parthians. Even after Herod had won, he was still paranoid that Rome would change its mind and favor the Parthian king, Antigonus, and Herod paid an assassin to kill him. No wonder Herod was so distraught when “Magi from the east” (likely from Parthia) came to Jerusalem inquiring about the newborn King of the Jews! (See full discussion s.v. “The Conflict of Kings,” 69-72.)
My only criticisms of the book are minor ones. I don’t agree with all of the authors’ conclusions. For example, I’m not sure the Magi were so wise. And at times I feel the authors are trying to do too much: apologetics, systematic theology, etc. But these criticisms may have to do more with my own expectations and opinions than problems with the book itself.
In summary, The First Days of Jesus is a fresh look at the oh so important incarnation of Jesus in its context and with a view of its significance. It seeks to help readers understand the message of the incarnation found in scripture and to show them how that message can transform their lives. Both the non-expert and the scholar will glean from this book, and it can make a nice devotional book during the Christmas season. In The First Days of Jesus, Köstenberger and Stewart remind us that “Jesus’ birth is not just a past event with no significance; Jesus changed the course of history and even now, two thousand years later, can change the course of your life” (43).