The Message of Christmas

This post is by Matt Ritchie, who collects some lines in Christmas songs that declare that Jesus is King:

Most American Christians tend to think of the gospel in soterian terms. That is, we think of it as a description of the means by which God saves (usually) individual people. When the gospel is reduced to soterian terms, the emphasis rests on Jesus’ atoning work for our sin – a work which ends our alienation from God.

The problem with this perspective is not so much that it is wrong about how atonement/salvation works, so much as it is wrong about what the New Testament writers meant when they talked about the gospel. For the New Testament writers, the gospel was the enunciation that God has placed Jesus in authority over our world, and that God’s grand project of setting the world to rights has now begun. Atonement and salvation are (and should be) a part of the backdrop behind the message, but they are not the central message.

In his most recent book, which I have not yet had a chance to read, Scot McKnight has given this gospel a name: The King Jesus Gospel.  I really like this name, because – in four words – it manages to re-frame the concept of the gospel in terms that are more in tune with the Biblical text.

As we have been getting closer to Christmas, I have been thinking about the way the sacred music that we hear this time of year emphasizes the theme of King Jesus in ways that we don’t usually encounter in our soterian-obsessed world. It is almost as if, for eleven months out of the year, we get exposed to a lot of hymns and preaching about personal salvation, and then – all of a sudden – for one month, we get the “big picture” gospel.

For example:

Joy to the World!
The Lord has come!
Let Earth receive her king!


Christ, by highest heaven adored
Christ, the everlasting Lord;
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.


Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’ angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!


Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy would one day rule the nations

The libretto of Handel’s Messiah, lifted entirely from scripture, returns to the King Jesus theme time and again:

Lift up your heads, o ye gates, and the King of Glory shall come in.

For unto us a child is born. Unto us, a son is given.
And the government shall be upon his shoulders.

Even those parts of the libretto that are not explicitly about King Jesus still seem to emphasize the theme of God’s renewed sovereignty over the world:

O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain; O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, and be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!
Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together…

The climactic Hallelujah is perhaps the best example of the meaning and tone of the King Jesus Gospel. Handel’s triumphant chorus, which gives the feel that it could keep building and going on and on forever, as the lyrics themselves suggest, conveys a sort-of spiritual “high” that accompanies the enunciation of God’s reign in the world.

This flash mob performance by the Opera Company of Philadelphia (which I linked to last year) perfectly captures the sheer sense of joy behind the thought of God’s renewed authority, and its implications for our future. Just watch the way people – everyone, really – reacts to the song:

So, as you listen to sacred music on your iPhone or CD player this week, I hope you’ll spend some time reflecting on the King Jesus Gospel. The thought of God’s movement to bring healing and relief to the all-too-real crises of our own world is far bigger, far more hope-filled, and far more joyful than one which reduces it all to personal sin management.


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  • Isn’t it interesting that the “one month” where we get “big picture Jesus” is the very same one in which most of Christianity is so distracted by Christmas? Like the content is all there, but do we actually hear any of it?

  • davey

    “what the New Testament writers meant when they talked about the gospel”

    Why should that be definitive for us? The NT writers never wrote about the Trinity, should we stop talking about that? Maybe we should only say the gospel in the very words they used, because otherwise we are not saying their gospel. Oh, but of course they might have meant something different by their words than the words mean now, so maybe we should say their words but tell people there is a proviso we don’t really know what they meant? Why should talk of Jesus as Messiah and King be definitive for us, why should the ways of talking according to their understanding by the Jews Abraham to Moses to Jesus and then the early Christians be definitive for us? Why shouldn’t the ways of understanding of later Christians be just as important, eg Luther, Calvin? The gospel writers differed, Paul and James differed, at the least on what was most important.

  • Nick

    ‘The problem with this perspective is not so much that it is wrong about how atonement/salvation works, so much as it is wrong about what the New Testament writers meant when they talked about the gospel.”

    I loved the Scot’s new book. However, don’t you think wording things this way is liable to misunderstanding? The saving effects of the cross is not just a backdrop to the message of King Jesus it is a matter of first importance. Let’s not reduce the gospel to a Un-robust atonement theology but let us also not use language that can make the saving effects of the cross of secondary importance. I’m sure that’s not what you meant to do but wording things the way you did makes it seem that way.

  • John C

    You failed to mention ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’, which is probably the most Jewish of our Christmas carols. It emphasises that the coming of Jesus is the climax of Israel’s story, though it also gives a soterian twist to Jewish messianic expectations (with references to saving us from ‘hell’ and taking us to ‘our heavenly home’):

    O come, O come, Emmanuel
    And ransom captive Israel
    That mourns in lonely exile here
    Until the Son of God appear
    Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
    Shall come to thee, O Israel.

    O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
    Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
    From depths of Hell Thy people save
    And give them victory o’er the grave

    O come, Thou Key of David, come,
    And open wide our heavenly home;
    Make safe the way that leads on high,
    And close the path to misery.

    O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
    Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
    In ancient times did’st give the Law,
    In cloud, and majesty and awe.
    Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
    Shall come to thee, O Israel.

  • @Nick, #3… Perhaps one way to avoid misunderstanding atonement is use the Exodus story as an example. In the same way that there would be no Exodus without the Passover, there would be no King Jesus without the cross and resurrection.

    Peace, Brian

  • Amos Paul

    One Request: Can we all just forget about ‘Mary Did You Know?’ Yeah.

  • Jerry Sather

    Davey, If the idea of Jesus as Messiah is not central,what is?

    Scot, this only scratches the surface. Is there an expert in hymnody near you that could collaborate with you on how hymns reflect the King Jesus Gospel?

  • davey

    Jerry, I’m supposing Jesus didn’t need to be the Jewish Messiah in order to reconcile God and humanity (inclusive of Jews) by his death.

  • Nick


    That would be helpful but I would still say that we need to be careful when we talk about atonement and the gospel. It’s not that we don’t need atonement in our King Jesus gospel we just need a more robust atonement. One that is big enough for a broad statement like “for our sins”. At some points, not all, in your little write up it could seem like we don’t need it that much.

  • The hymns of Christmas do really shine the light on the message, unlike most times of the year.
    Also found this a thought provoker:
    What If….

    A poem by jill briscoe on the Manger

    What if the manger had been empty, and no angel in the sky…

  • DRT

    I had not seen that, stupendous. Thank you for posting again, please post it every year.

  • Hi Nick, please don’t forget that without the Passover, Israel doesn’t escape the Angel of Death and God’s judgement. Without the Passover, the Jews are not marked as God’s people and their Exodus does not begin. I believe the same can be said of Easter and Christians.

    Now, imagine if the Exodus story stopped at the Passover. No covenant, no journey, no new kingdom, no new life as kingdom subjects. The story simply wouldn’t be complete! (Perhaps that would be a soterian Jewish faith? Lol)

    In the same way, I believe the Christian life begins and is only possible through atonement and the forgiveness of sins through Jesus. However, that’s not all! Jesus brings us into a new covenant with God. Through Christ, life under God’s rule is available to anyone and everyone.

    I hope that’s a little clearer. Thanks… I guess this became pretty off-topic! How about “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” or “Angels from the Realms of Glory” as two other great King Jesus Christmas hymns?

    Peace, Brian

  • Bruce

    @Davey #8

    You propose that Jesus did not need to be Jewish. Now we’re back to the issue of defining the gospel, since Paul seems to have imagined precisely that Jesus DID need to be Jewish, if for no other reason than to demonstrate God’s faithfulness to his covenant with ethnic Israel; it is out of that divine faithfulness that God’s redemption of his creation emerges.
    That’s how I think we’re supposed to be reading Rom 15:8-9, especially in light of the full flow of the letter (so too Gal 4:4-5, Gal 3:13). Rom 15:8-9 is in many ways the culmination of Paul’s presentation since chapter 1 of that letter, where he spoke of not being ashamed of his gospel.


  • Another reason why Advent can be a rich season of meditation for the Church. King Jesus’ “coming” in all its multifaceted glory is emphasized.

  • Nick


    I agree with you. My concern is that when you say things like the atonement not being central to the message of the gospel you are using misleading language. If you were to be pushed you would acknowledge that a robust exodus driven atonement theology is central to the gospel. Christ died for our sins is a matter of first importance. You know this and have acknowledged it. My argument is simply that the language you use to reject a minimalist-penal-substitution-theology-only driven gospel can be taken to mean that atonement has NO place in the gospel. We need to apply the Jesus Creed to our disagreements and ensure that we don’t use language that could be miundertood. Otherwise people might miss out on the goodness of the corrective.

  • davey

    Bruce 13, I am supposing a non-Jewish Jesus dying would have reconciled God and humanity. Why wouldn’t that also fulfil God’s faithfulness to his covenant with ethnic Israel, in that it would mean Israel was also reconciled along with everyone else? But, if you can find evidence to suggest Jesus needed to be Jewish to fulfil other specific promises to ethnic Jews, wouldn’t this be irrelevant to the general reconciliation, even if necessary in that God has to keep specific promises.

  • Bruce

    @Davey #16

    That’s fine, if that’s YOUR gospel. My point is, that understanding is not PAUL’S gospel.

  • davey

    Bruce 17, I think I am expounding Paul’s gospel! There are lots of different readings of these things!

  • Bruce

    David 18.

    That’s funny that you think you’re expounding Paul’s gospel, because the only one citing passages from Paul is me (post 13). I’d be curious how you read those passages, and look forward to your enlightenment of Paul’s gospel in reference to them.