7 Questions about the mystery of the incarnation
Alexander Stewart (Ph. D., Biblical Studies, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Academic Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Tyndale Theological Seminary.
Dr. Stewart is from Connecticut in the U.S.A. As a teenager and young adult he served with Teen Missions International as a summer missionary in Brazil, Israel, Pakistan, Thailand, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Switzerland. Through these early experiences he gained a vision and passion for God’s global kingdom; a kingdom not limited or hindered by political, economic, or cultural barriers. During Dr. Stewart’s undergraduate studies at Columbia International University God confirmed his call to overseas mission work with a particular focus on theological education.
God has blessed Dr. Stewart with a wonderful wife, Jenny, four boys, Elijah, Benjamin, Paul, and Micah, and two girls, Charis and Sarah Kate.
1. What previous research and/or personal interests helped prepare you to write The First Days of Jesus? How was this particular project born?
It is a bit funny, but my wife always jokes with me about being a scrooge when it comes to Christmas. I don’t particularly get into all the festivities and decorations very much and I don’t enjoy most popular Christmas songs (Jingle Bells, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, etc.). I find them annoying and even heretical (Santa Clause is omnipotent and omnipresent—he sees me when I’m sleeping?!; the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes—really?!). I do love Christmas songs which are theologically rich. This background explains my interest in, to use a very well-worn cliché, understanding the real meaning of Christmas.
I worked with Andreas Köstenberger and Justin Taylor on a previous book which focused on the last week of Jesus’ life called The Final Days of Jesus. This week of Jesus’ life, of course, relates to Easter. That project was well received and we began brainstorming together about a follow-up project on the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life and Christmas. Every year Christians celebrate these two events and pastors preach on passages related to Jesus death and resurrection at Easter and his birth at Christmas. Justin Taylor was not able to directly work on this second project with us but he encouraged the acceptance of the project with Crossway.
2. Who is the intended audience for The First Days of Jesus? Would it benefit pastors? professors? students? lay Christians in the local church?
Any interested Christian could benefit but the book is primarily directed towards pastors. Every year pastors are confronted with preaching sermons related to Christmas for most of the month of December. The goal was to help these pastors be better equipped for this task of preaching and teaching from the infancy narratives.
3. What is unique about The First Days of Jesus? What contribution does it make to biblical studies and/or biblical theology?
I think there are two unique features of this book. First, we seek to blend exegesis, history, theology, and devotional application. This is not as easy as it sounds! Many people who are interested in devotional writing become bored when confronted with exegesis or theology. Others love historical details but become uncomfortable when an author seeks to encourage spiritual commitment and growth. We do the best we can to blend these elements in one book on the infancy narratives.
Second, we include an extended discussion of John’s Gospel in a book on the infancy narratives. Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 are the normal texts on the infancy narratives but John’s prologue provides rich reflection on Jesus’ pre-existence and the incarnation and we include it in this study of Jesus’ birth.
4. How should Christians understand the Bible’s teaching on the virgin birth outside of Isaiah, Matthew, and Luke, where it seems to be so clearly articulated? Is it problematic that other writers like John, Paul, or other Old Testament prophets don’t write of the virgin birth so plainly?
I don’t think it is a problem at all. The Bible contains a united message about God and humanity but it is also incredibly diverse and discusses different things in different ways at different places. Different biblical authors emphasize different points. They are not uniform and we should not expect them to be. Now if some biblical author contradicted Matthew and Luke’s account of a virgin conception it would potentially be problematic but silence is not contradiction.
5. In the book, you contend for the virgin birth of Jesus and answer skeptics who have argued a contrary perspective. What advice do you have for pastors and teachers with regard to communicating this doctrine to congregations?
With most biblical teaching there needs to be wisdom and balance. I don’t think it is necessary to constantly teach or preach on the virgin conception, but it should not be downplayed or avoided when relevant to understanding who Jesus is and how God acted in sending Jesus to the world. Over the past few generations, the virgin birth has often been used as a litmus test for one’s commitment to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. It is a teaching that sounds incredible, could only be miraculous, is rejected by most skeptics, but is clearly taught in the Gospels.
6. What section or passage of The First Days of Jesus was particularly memorable to research and write? What personally edified you in writing this book, increasing your affections for Christ?
My favorite part to research and write was actually the appendix. In the appendix we discuss messianic expectation in the Old Testament and Second Temple Jewish literature. Most pastors and educated Christians will have heard about various Jewish works written in the centuries surrounding Jesus’ birth such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, Psalms of Solomon, 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch among many others. Most Christians, however, don’t have any idea how to access these books and don’t have the time to read them even if they could find them. In the appendix we explore this literature, give some historical background, and provide examples from these books to illustrate the kind of Jewish messianic expectation that was current around the time of Jesus’ birth. I love grounding our claims in the primary sources and I thrive on this kind of historical research.
The most personally edifying sections to write were the hymns recorded in Luke’s account: the Magnificat (from Mary), Benedictus (from Zechariah), the Gloria in Excelsis (angelic announcement to the shepherds), and the Nunc Dimittis (Simeon’s declaration). These hymns powerfully situate the birth of Jesus within the context of Jewish national hopes for the fulfillment of God’s promises to his people. When reading these hymns it is easy to be caught up in the excitement and hope surrounding the birth of Jesus and God’s plan to finally fulfill his ancient promises.
7. What is next for you? What project are you currently working on? How can people follow your work and ministry?
I just came out with a short book on perseverance in the NT: Perseverance and Salvation: What the New Testament Teaches about Faith and Works (Areopagus Critical Christian Issues 9; Energion Publications, 2018). This is a popular level (no footnotes) approach to several important questions like “Can a Christian lose salvation?” from the perspective of biblical studies.
My next academic monograph (lots of footnotes) is focused on the motivational use of fear appeals, scare tactics, and threats in the book of Revelation. Christians today, perhaps responding to our heritage of Hell, fire, and brimstone preaching, are quite afraid of fear and often don’t know how to incorporate a healthy fear of God into their faith.
Additionally, I hope to come out with a popular level book on how to interpret the book of Revelation in the next few years. This was the focus of my doctoral research and I think I have some important things to say on the matter but the problem is that the market is quite flooded with books about how to interpret Revelation. We will see how it turns out.
The best way to follow my writing and research is on academia.edu. When I am not researching and writing I work full-time as a missionary teacher and academic dean at Tyndale Theological Seminary in the Netherlands. Tyndale is a missions seminary committed to training pastors and Christian leaders for God’s global kingdom.
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