The gospel according to Luke records how, upon Jesus’ birth, there appeared to shepherds “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!'” (Lk. 2:13b-14 ESV). It’s a popular scene from the Nativity story; many a young Christian has seen the Children’s Bible illustration of the harp-toting, white-robed angels that appeared to notify the shepherds of the baby Jesus’ birth.
While such an image of “the heavenly host” is charming, there’s something bigger–something more dramatic–to the scene. And it becomes obvious when you listen through the filter of the Old Testament. I think the CEB captures the nuance well: “Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God.”
An assembly of the heavenly forces?
Well that sounds almost militaristic…isn’t the Incarnation about God’s love for humanity?
The angelic assembly was more than just a luminary Christmas card from above (“Joy to the World!”), it was a divine proclamation of war–a war fought and violently won.
When you read the Old Testament, you’ll sooner or later come across the epithet LORD of Hosts, or some of its variations. (Some dynamic equivalence translations will use LORD Almighty.)
Here’s an excerpt from the Lexham Bible Dictionary article “Lord of Hosts” by Dempsey Rosales Acosta:
The phrase “Lord of Hosts” communicates God’s role as a warrior who fights both in the cosmic conflict against divine forces and through human historical events for His people, Israel. The phrase appears 285 times in the Old Testament, with a high concentration in the Prophets (especially Isaiah, Jeremiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi). The Septuagint most often translates the Hebrew term “hosts” (צְבָאוֹת, tseva’oth) with the Greek term “Almighty” (παντοκράτωρ, pantokratōr; Zobel, “Tseva’oth,” 216–17).
Who is YHWH Tseva’oth? He is the Divine Warrior, the leader of heaven’s armies. He is the uncreated creator of all other gods, and he judges their evil (Ps. 82; Jer. 48:7). He is an active God, a powerful God, and a conquering God.
And roughly two-thousand-and-twenty years ago, he became incarnate as the man Jesus, the long-awaited Christ whom the prophets had foretold–the same prophets who saw the great salvific and judgmental deeds of the LORD of Hosts–and the armies of heaven sang to inaugurate his new campaign.
And the Almighty became a weak child. The Divine Warrior became a carpenter. The Lord of Heavenly Forces became a first-century Jew under Roman rule.
Because though the war was violently won, it was the Incarnate God who suffered the violence.
Jesus conquered by being crucified. He was powerful by hanging powerless. He took action by passively suffering.
Paul writes to the Colossians: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15 NIV). This is the paradoxical power of God the Son’s kenosis. By setting aside all his might, he claimed victory. It defies expectations; it breaks our system of logic. Truly, the weakness of God is stronger than any human conceptions of power (1 Cor. 1:25).
But the spiritual powers of darkness were not God’s only enemies. Who is it, after all, who follows the prince of the power of the air (Eph 2:2)? None other than us–God’s own image-bearers. And when God came to us, enfleshed as one of us…what did we do? Karl Barth observed that it was God’s greatest act of love that prompted humanity’s greatest act of evil–we killed God.
It bears repeating because of how oxymoronically offensive it is: We killed God.
Yet impossibly, human evil served divine love. God the Son became God-forsaken, because “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8 NIV).
This is how God freed us from our satanic enthrallment. Not by overturning Rome like the Jews had hoped (though the City of God outlasted Caesar’s). Nor by sending legions of angels to break open the Grave.
God freed us by sending the Son into the world as one of us. He came under political systems, economic regulations, and judicial codes. And God sent his Son into the Grave. His body was a gory mess; his tomb was sealed.
Of course, the Son’s entry into the Grave is not the end. As the Eastern Orthodox Church’s paschal troparion goes:
“Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Jesus the Anointed One, God the Son, came to die, and death was too weak to hold him. On the third day he rose again, and because he rose we have the hope of rising again. We have the hope that all of creation will be reborn as new creation–the New Jerusalem.
And after Jesus rose again, he ascended into heaven. At his trial, Jesus quoted Daniel 7, saying that he would be seated “at the right hand of Power” (Mk. 14:62 ESV). He is there now, having been exalted and vindicated as Lord by the Father, who is glorified by his Son’s deeds (Phil. 2:8-11).
Now, recall that the Septuagint used the Greek word pantokratōr to translate tseva’oth.
I think it’s no coincidence that a particular way of depicting Christ became popular as the Church grew. A depiction of our Lord Christ, the golden light of heaven all around him, as he looks down upon the world. It’s called the Christ Pantocrator icon.
For nearly two millennia, we have worshipped Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Pantocrator. At Christmas, we celebrate his birth: his first coming from heaven to earth. He gave us hope through his life, death, and resurrection. And every day, we anticipate his coming again.
When he came the first time, the angels sang; at the second, the archangel will shout and blow the trumpet, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command” and we will rise again to everlasting life (1 Thess. 4:16-17 ESV). In this time between his Ascension and his Return–his Advent and his Second Advent–we worship and wait, always expecting the arrival of our Master and hoping for his favorable judgment over our faithful service (Matt. 25:23). “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10 ESV). We do this work not to earn his grace, but in response to the grace he has already given us. And we are “created in Christ Jesus,” both as part of creation by the preexistent Logos and as part of the new creation, having entered into it by putting on Jesus’ resurrection in baptism (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12; 1 Pet. 3:21).
And when the Kingdom of God arrives in its fullness, when the new creation is fully realized, the divine warfare will be over. For then we will perfectly and eternally do the good work of Jesus. This is why we are faithful, in preparation for when he rewards our faithfulness with greater responsibilities to reign in the new creation as divinized humans (Matt. 25:23; Rev. 2:26-28). Sin–which is itself nothing but perversion of the good that is–will be gone, because everything and everyone will be whole. And when we are whole, there will be no more corruption and rot; we will have a truly free will at last. Until that time, we have the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, within us as a guarantee of what we are to acquire (Eph. 1:13-14).
So have a Merry Christmas as we celebrate the coming of the Christ, who has secured this hope for us and will consummate it at his coming again. Eternally divine from before time, he became eternally human and shall forever be so after time. He was born, he suffered, he rose again, and he is Lord, the LORD of Hosts. The birth of Roman emperors was often trumpeted as euangelion–good news. Well, the Christian’s euangelion is far better, far more provocative, and far more hopeful.