The Incarnation and Poverty Alleviation

This week churches around the world celebrate the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ. At most of those churches, the prophecies of Isaiah will be read:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14).

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon[d] his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” (Isa. 9:6-7).

When Jesus began his earthly ministry as an adult, he applied the prophecies of Isaiah to himself:

“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.  And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4:16-21).

Isaiah prophesied that a King was coming who would usher in a kingdom unlike anything the world had ever seen—Jesus’ hearers in the Nazarene synagogue that day must have wondered if these prophecies were really about to come true. Was it really possible that justice, peace, and righteousness were about to be established forever? Was Jesus really the promised King who would bring healing to the parched soil, the feeble hands, the shaky knees, the fearful hearts, the blind, the deaf, the lame, the mute, the brokenhearted, the captives, and the sinful souls? Was he the King who would proclaim the year of jubilee for the poor (Isa. 35:1–6; 53:5; 61:1–2)? Jesus’ answer to all these questions was a resounding “yes!”

Indeed, later in the same chapter, Jesus summarized His ministry as follows: “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43, emphasis added).

The mission of Jesus then was and is to say to one and all, “I am the King of kings and Lord of lords, and I am using My power to fix everything that sin has ruined.” The good news that Jesus proclaimed was cosmic in scope, bringing healing to all creation, reconciling all things by the blood of his cross (Col. 1:20) and making all things new (Rev. 21:4).1

This is what we sing about each Christmas in Joy to the World: “He comes to make His blessings known, far as the curse is found.”

God Himself Had to Do It

Perhaps less likely to be read at Christmastime are the words of Hebrews 2:14-18:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Through this and other passages (Rom. 5, etc.), the Scriptures teach us that problem of sin is something only God himself can fix by taking on flesh and blood. Incarnation is necessary, because Christ’s death is necessary. He had to enter into our flesh, into our temptations, into our sufferings, in order to fulfill God’s plan of redemption.

Poverty is complex and multi-faceted. Individual sin, systemic oppression, and even demonic forces can all contribute to poverty. Indeed, the problems are so large that only God can solve them, not a distant God but an incarnate God. The only solution to poverty once lay in a manger.

Breaking Every Chain

This Christmas, as you celebrate Jesus’ first coming and look with longing toward His second, declare and demonstrate the fullness of the gospel message in word and In deed—especially after such a long, agonizing year in which we are all painfully aware of the brokenness in our world. How we understand the gospel deeply impacts how we live in the world. A gospel that doesn’t speak to all of the effects of the Fall isn’t good news for anyone who is suffering in this life. We must preach the full gospel—the good news of the kingdom of God and the cosmic healing that it brings.

The baby in the manger is the same Messiah who will ride through the clouds to rescue and reign. In this light, take a moment to consider the words of the familiar hymn “Oh Holy Night” (adapted from Adolphe Adam’s French by John Sullivan Dwight):

O Holy night! The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees; O hear the Angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born.

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His Gospel is Peace.
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,
And in His name, all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we
Let all within us Praise His Holy name
Christ is the Lord; O praise His name forever!
His power and glory evermore proclaim.

May this be our refrain and our prayer as we praise the one who, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Merry Christmas from the Chalmers Center.

  1. Three paragraphs adapted from Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself, 2012 (Chicago: Moody Publishers), 32-33.
Justin Lonas

Justin Lonas

Justin Lonas is director of core content deployment for the Chalmers Center at Covenant College and an MDiv student at Reformed Theological Seminary (Atlanta). He is a member of East Ridge Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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