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December 10, 2019

Jesus’s Birth through Four Biblical, Literary Forms


How do you start reading the Bible?

Last year around Christmas, I wrote to affirm the infinite value of re-reading familiar passages of the Bible, like the story of Jesus’s birth in Luke chapters 1 through 2. And this year, I want to also affirm the practice of looking at multiple places in the Bible to increase our joy this Christmas season.

I want to structure our brief, very incomplete tour of what the Bible has to say about the birth of Christ in terms of literary forms. By literary forms, I mean different categories of writing we find in the Bible.

We’ll look at prophecy, theology, song of praise, and narrative. By looking at these four literary forms, it is my hope that we will see Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy, the inexhaustible object of study, the reason for worship, and the resolution of all conflict.

1.) Prophecy

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
  from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

We often talk during this season about the Christmas story. But narrative is not the only form that helps us see Christ during Christmas. Prophecy, too, shines a special light on the glory of our Redeemer in a way that no other form can accomplish.

What separates prophecy in my mind apart from story? The most obvious aspect might be that prophecy requires proclaiming things will happen that have not yet happened.

Use of this literary form include, but are not limited to the following: creating a sense of expectancy, giving hope to the hopeless, giving people signs to discern when an important event has come upon them, and making bold predictions meant to shock readers.

The passages from Micah and Isaiah above certainly do these things, and they do so with Jesus as the focus.  

So, when we look at the birth of Jesus Christ through the literary form of prophecy, we experience how Jesus is the fulfillment of the expectancy and the hope given to God’s people long before.

2.) Theology

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. … 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. (John 1:1–3, 14)

In a 2015 Crossway article, K. Erik Thoennes writes, “The study of theology is an effort to make definitive statements about God and his implications in an accurate, coherent, relevant way, based on God’s self-revelations.”

If prophecy is essentially the form of divine foresight, theology, like Thoennes said, is the form of divine description. In other words, theology is describing who God is and what He does. In that sense, I am calling this beautiful passage from the opening of John’s Gospel theology.

Theology is not just head-knowledge; it is an experience. Good theology does something paradoxical: it first helps us know God with greater clarity, and it second opens up a whole new world of mystery for us to dive into.

For example, as we read about the birth of Jesus Christ here in John 1, we have confidence that the Word (Jesus) was God and that the Word (Jesus) became flesh. We are told this with assurance and clarity. Yet there is so much more to know about what “the word became flesh” means. So much left to learn about the person of Jesus Christ and the incarnation.

So, when we look at the birth of Jesus Christ from the literary form of theology, we gain assurance that He is God and that He is an infinitely beautiful and edifying object of study.

3.) Song of Praise

            See Luke 1:46–55

What makes a song a song? Well, in this context a song means a sustained outpouring of emotion. And here we have Mary’s song of praise, so the emotion is that of awe, joy, and wonder.

If you look through Mary’s song, you may be surprised to see that the main pronoun is he rather than I. You may expect in an outpouring of emotion, the speaker would be saying, “I am in awe of you. I love you, God. I am comforted by you.”

I think it’s fitting, however, that the song of praise here is recalling exactly the cause of her praise. She highlights what the Lord has done, and although we can see it between the lines, her personal emotions take a backseat to the work of God.

So, when we look at the song inspired by our Savior while he was a baby in Mary’s womb, we too are led to worship His mighty name!

4.) Narrative

            See Luke 1:2–2:21; Matthew 1:18–2:23

What qualifies something as narrative? In my opinion, the essential ingredients are character, goal, conflict, and resolution.

Some of the best stories we know play around with these main ingredients. Some have multiple characters with various goals that overlap and all come together during the resolution. That’s exactly what makes the story of the birth of Jesus both spiritually and aesthetically rich.

Our cast of characters? Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, Gabriel, the innkeeper, Herod, the wise men, the shepherds. Each one has their own part to play in this story, with their own goals, and conflicts toward those goals.

What’s the one thing that brings all these various storylines together? On what point do they converge? The birth of Jesus Christ. Looking at this in a literary sort of way, we get the sense already from this first story that Jesus “is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).

The Ultimate Conflict

Now, it is on the topic of conflict that I want to end this article. For all people living today, there is an ultimate conflict we are quickly approaching: the final judgment.

For those who are in Jesus Christ, the resolution to that conflict came two thousand years ago on the cross at Calvary. Jesus Christ died for our sins. For those outside Christ, what is your planned resolution to this ultimate conflict?

I urge you this Christmas season to put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ, proclaiming him as Lord over your life, and step into the peace that comes from resolving this conflict.  

Photo Credit: Unsplash

Davis Wetherell

Davis Wetherell (MA in English, Marquette University) is a writer and editor. He recently managed article content for Open the Bible. He has taught college classes on literature, rhetoric, and composition. Davis has a heart for writers and loves to serve them. Check out his blog.
Davis Wetherell (MA in English, Marquette University) is a writer and editor. He recently managed article content for Open the Bible. He has taught college classes on literature, rhetoric, and composition. Davis has a heart for writers and loves to serve them. Check out his blog.