During Advent, it’s traditional for Christians to prepare our hearts and minds to celebrate the birth of our Saviour. We reread the messianic prophecies in Isaiah and meditate on the Nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke. Perhaps we might take in a performance of Handel’s Messiah over the holidays, or create our own Spotify playlist of Advent music.
But historically, the celebration of Advent encompassed far more than just the Nativity. Its themes stretched from the manger to the cross to the heavenly throne, from Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem to his return at the end of time. In fact, the word Advent comes from the Latin adventus, a translation of the Greek parousia, used in the New Testament for the second coming of Christ. Ancient carols such as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Creator of the Stars of Night” reflect this cluster of Advent themes.
In keeping with that older, broader conception of Advent, here are a few related themes drawn from the beginning and end of all four Gospels, to parallel the four weeks of the season. Together, they form a detailed mosaic that can help us celebrate our Lord, not just during Advent but throughout the year.
Matthew: Royal descendant of David
Matthew begins his Gospel with that most festive of elements – a genealogy. We may be tempted to skim this list of unfamiliar names, or skip it altogether, on our way to the Nativity. But Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience, to show them Jesus was the promised Davidic king with an everlasting reign, and also the descendant of Abraham through whom all nations would be blessed. His genealogy was essential groundwork for making that case, as was the litany of fulfilled Old Testament prophecies Matthew cites to support his account of Jesus’ birth.
Jewish readers would’ve been shocked to see four gentile women with complicated backstories – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba – included in the lineage of their Messiah. They would’ve been equally stunned by the visit of the Magi, pagan astrologers from Persia, bringing gifts and offering worship to the King of the Jews. This royal descendant of Abraham and David would be a blessing to people from every conceivable background.
But Matthew goes further. He connects the names Jesus and Immanuel – “God saves” and “God with us” – to show the coming Messiah would be far more than just a powerful human monarch. He would do what only God could do – save his people from their sins.
The extent of Jesus’ reign is stretched to cosmic proportions at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. As part of the Great Commission, the Lord tells his followers that he’s been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Jesus now reigns over all nations as well as the entire universe and the spirit realm, to the glory of his Father, and will return to renew all things and usher in his everlasting kingdom.
Mark: Dynamic and powerful Saviour
Mark has nothing to say about the Nativity, but jumps right into the start of Jesus’ public ministry. It’s a literary technique known as in medias res (Latin for “into the middle of things”) which omits any prologue or setup and begins in the midst of the action.
And Mark is the Gospel of action. Events race along at a brisk pace. Jesus’ baptism, his temptation, the call of his disciples, his preaching, healing and miracles, all tumble into each other with minimal description, driven along by the staccato repetition of “immediately.”
But this narrative style isn’t a concession to modern limited attention spans. Although Mark skips the Nativity, he labels his work “the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” As the Apostle Peter’s assistant, Mark likely wrote for a Roman audience that appreciated dynamism and decisive action. Accordingly, he portrayed Jesus as a man of action as well as words, a dynamic and powerful Saviour who is ready and able to save.
In keeping with his terse approach, Mark ends with a sparse account of the resurrection. Even so, he adds a unique twist to the scene at the empty tomb. In the other Gospels, the women at the tomb are afraid, then reassured, and finally they report back to the apostles with joy. But Mark focuses only on the fear and trembling that grips them as they flee the tomb and tell no one at first what they saw. There’s a proper sense here of godly fear at the idea of Jesus risen, reigning and returning.
Luke: Light of nations, outsiders and women
Luke is the only non-Jewish author of Scripture, an educated Greek physician and historian who wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else, including his friend and mentor, the Apostle Paul. Writing in elegant Greek for a gentile audience, Luke had a special concern for foreigners, outsiders and women. In fact, Bible scholars have on occasion referred to Luke as the evangelist of women.
It’s a fair description. Stories of women feature strongly at the beginning and end of his Gospel, and also throughout. Luke starts his narrative before the birth of Jesus, with the birth of John the Baptist. This dual Nativity forms a lengthy, lyrical prologue, rich in intimate detail, told largely from the perspective of the two mothers, Elizabeth and Mary, bonded by their unique experience of a miraculous pregnancy.
In his account of Jesus’ birth, Luke highlights the shepherds, outsiders living on the fringes of society who are first to see the newborn Christ Child. And when Jesus is presented at the temple, Anna the prophetess becomes the first person to publish news of redemption in his name. Luke notes that Anna was from Asher, one of the smallest, remotest tribes of Israel with closer cultural ties to its gentile neighbours than to Jerusalem. By focusing on these women and the outsiders in his Nativity account, Luke impressed on his readers that Jesus was a Messiah for everyone, even for them – “a light for revelation to the gentiles.”
All four Gospels agree that the women at the tomb, Mary Magdalene chief among them, were the first to encounter the risen Christ. But Luke establishes this as the same group of socially connected, well-to-do women who had travelled with Jesus and the Twelve and supported his ministry out of their means. And yet, when they told the apostles that the Lord had risen, the men thought it was an “idle tale” and didn’t believe them. Regardless, Jesus had chosen these women to be the first witnesses of his resurrection – in effect apostles to the apostles.
Luke then concludes his Gospel by connecting it to his second volume, the Book of Acts, through a brief description of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. In so doing, Luke anticipates Jesus’ second advent at the end of the age, when he will return to earth in the same manner in which he departed.
John: Cosmic Creator and intimate friend
John is the odd one out among the Gospel writers, following a different framework than the three synoptics. His narrative begins far before any of the others, in eternity past, before the creation of the cosmos. He identifies Jesus as the Word who has existed with God and as God from the beginning, the source of all light and life and the Creator of all things.
In place of a detailed account of Jesus’ birth, John offers this well-known summary statement: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” And so, with a few deft strokes, this Galilean fisherman outlines the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation – mysteries that succeeding generations of churchmen would labour long and hard to explain with reams of complicated language.
Together with the Nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke, John’s simple expression, “the Word became flesh,” forms an astounding picture: The infinite, eternal Creator of all things stepped into his creation as a human baby born of a young virgin in Bethlehem.
Throughout his Gospel, John maintains this balanced, incarnational portrait of Jesus as cosmically powerful Son of God and intimate personal friend. The latter comes to the fore after Jesus’ resurrection, in his warm, personal interactions with Mary Magdalene at the tomb and with Thomas the Twin in the upper room. The book ends with the Lord of the universe having breakfast on the beach with his friends, and mentioning in passing to Peter and John that he would come again at the end of time.
A detailed mosaic of the Messiah
As we celebrate the season of Advent, we tend to focus on the Nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke, bolstered by the messianic prophecies of Isaiah. And rightly so. The purpose of Advent is to help us prepare our hearts and minds for celebrating the birth of Jesus at Christmastime.
But the historical imagery of Advent in art, song and worship goes far beyond the baby in a manger at Bethlehem. It includes both the first and second advent of our Lord. It embraces Jesus in all his humility and majesty, born to suffer, die, rise, reign and return.
Isaiah’s great Advent prophecy points to this: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6, emphasis added).
This quartet of messianic titles is fleshed out in the four Gospels, especially as they relate the beginning and ending of Jesus’ time on earth, each from their own perspective. They combine to create a detailed mosaic of the Messiah in all his beauty and glory: the royal descendant of David; the dynamic and powerful Saviour; the light of nations, outsiders and women; the cosmic Creator and intimate friend.
Perhaps we might meditate on the facets of this mosaic during the four weeks of Advent, one Gospel facet per week. No doubt it would be time well spent as we prepare for Christmas. By the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, it could lift our thoughts and imaginations to new levels of wonder and worship toward our Messiah, born, crucified, risen, reigning and returning – for us.