When did Jesus become the Savior?
It’s no idle question reserved for abstract thinking by academic theologians or reflective pastors. Was the vulnerable, helpless baby Jesus the Savior of the world or only the potential, future Savior?
Much of Christendom limits Jesus’s saving acts to the three years of his public ministry, with the decisive actions taking place the last week or even his three hours on the cross.
Only Matthew and Luke make direct reference to Jesus’s birth, though John describes the Incarnation in philosophical language (John 1:1-14). Other New Testament writers place the emphasis on his teachings, death, and resurrection as indicators of his identity as “Savior.”
Does that mean Jesus became Savior at his baptism and not at his birth?
Some in the early church believed that Jesus was “adopted” as the Son of God at his baptism, or crucifixion, or resurrection. His birth and early life were mere prelude or preparation for becoming the Savior.
“Adoptionism,” however, was declared a heresy by the Synod of Antioch and the first Council of Nicea in 325 AD. But the notion of Jesus’s birth and obscure years as being inconsequential to his role as Savior remains prominent in today’s understanding and practice of Incarnation.
At the core of the meaning of Incarnation, however, is that the sovereign, infinite God of all Creation became flesh in a helpless baby, born among the homeless of an unmarried teenage peasant girl in a faraway corner of the earth. He spent the first two years of his life as an immigrant. He grew up in a working-class family in a backwoods town, without any notoriety, doing nothing newsworthy or particularly noticeable.
Jesus was no less the Son of God as he nursed at Mary’s breast than when he was hanging on a cross. He was the Savior while having his diaper changed AND while feeding the multitudes and healing the sick. He was Emmanuel, God with us, while learning the Torah in the Nazareth synagogue as when he was teaching the disciples on the hillside. He was the Word-made-flesh as he worked with his hands in the carpenter’s shop as surely as when his hands were nailed to a tree on Golgotha.
The Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth is more than a story of how God came in human flesh two thousand years ago. It is a description of how God comes NOW. God continues to come in vulnerability, powerlessness, poverty, dependency, and obscurity. And it is through vulnerability, weakness, powerlessness, and obscurity that Christ SAVES us.
Another name for the God who became human is LOVE, and love is a relationship of giving and receiving. Another way to describe it is as a dance. Dancing involves both leading and following. Sometimes love requires that we lead, even lift the other; at other times, we follow, and are lifted off by the other.
In the last years of my wife Linda’s life, she was totally dependent on my care and that of others. Her vulnerability, weakness, and powerlessness called forth our acts of love and devotion. Through her vulnerability, the “fruits of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23) grew in those of us who loved her: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Jesus the Christ still saves us through the vulnerable, weak, powerless, and dependent. Our most transformative celebration of Christmas is to meet him in those he called “the least of these”–the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the imprisoned, the sick, the grieving (Matthew 25:31-46).