The fact that the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus focus on Jesus as the Messiah of Israel (who has been sent to redeem and rule Israel), needs to be seen in the light of the bigger biblical picture.
Super-briefly—Israel was chosen from amongst the nations for the sake of the nations. God’s plan to redeem the whole human world was focused through his work for the nation of Israel. However, Israel herself was sinful and in need of redemption before God could bring to pass his saving purposes for the world. In the visions of the prophets, the new age was one in which God would first rescue his covenant people and then the nations would abandon their false gods and come and worship the God of Israel alongside Israel. And that’s the story we see in Luke’s gospel-story. Jesus is all about the salvation of Israel, and, precisely because of that, he is all about the salvation of the nations. That’s why the song of Simeon links the two. Once Israel is saved the nations can be saved. And that is why Luke’s bigger narrative in the story that runs across Luke-Acts moves from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. First Israel, then the nations.
Now, while the good news announced by the angels is not for “all people,” it is for “all the people”. We should note that it is for “all the people” (i.e., all Israel). The focus of the redemption in the speeches of Luke’s birth narrative is Israel as a whole, rather than simply some within Israel—read them and check it out. The intended beneficiaries of the Messiah’s activity are all Israel. The focus is Israel-as-a-whole.
Similarly, the hints at blessings for the Gentiles simply pick out “all nations” as the target (i.e., everyone who is not a Jew).
So what at first seems to be pretty parochial turns out to be surprisingly all-encompassing.
Now, of course, one cannot simply read full-blown universalism off these texts. It would be perfectly possible to speak hyperbolically of the salvation of all the people Israel and all the nations in a situation in which some individuals are not saved for one reason or another. The focus of the text is the two groups, not every individual that composes them. (Although, even then, it presumably speaks of the salvation of at very least the of the individuals that compose the two groups. If only a tiny remnant of Israel benefits from the Messiah, it would be more than odd to refer to them as “all the people.”)
So while this theme is compatible with universalism and could even be taken to suggest it, it does not demonstrate it. However, if one is already a universalist for other reasons—as I am—then these birth stories do indeed bring encouragement for an eventual global restoration.
But we must not see the journey in any simple and direct way. All the Gospel writers are well aware that Jesus actually causes division in both groups. Though many in Israel accept him, even more reject him; though many Gentiles embrace the good news, many more resist it. So any universalism that we see in the Christmas story would have to be able to incorporate this important element of the story.
Now the model of universalism that I developed in my book (The Evangelical Universalist), recognizes that the journey to the destination of the salvation of all Israel and all the nations takes a complicated route. I argued that the NT holds in tension the idea of the kingdom of God here now and its future fullness. The new creation has begun, but it is yet to come. It is now, but it is not yet.
This tension, this overlap of the old age and the new age, helps us to understand the story of the salvation of Israel and the nations, which was promised in the Christmas story.
The Jewish Christ believers in the Jesus communities are a microcosm of saved Israel; and the gentile Christ believers in the Jesus communities are a microcosm of the saved nations. So in the ekklesia, i.e., the community of Christ, we can already see the promised redemption of Israel and the nations. When Jews and Gentiles, redeemed by Jesus, gather together as one in Christ to worship God, then we see the promises of the prophets fulfilled. Israel is saved. The new age has dawned. The Spirit has been poured out. The nations are coming to acknowledge the God of Israel. This is what the Messiah has achieved.
But there is more to come…
Above is the second part of the Nomad Podcast interview of Robin Parry. The other parts are: Is Christmas really for everyone? and Christmas for everyone!
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