The Christian faith is not about our movement toward God but rather His coming to us. When Adam and Eve fell into sin, hiding themselves in shame, God did not wait for them to return to Him. He sought them out. Luther’s theology is characterized as a “theology from below” in that it does not begin with us and our striving to seek God in His majesty. In Luther’s language that would be a “theology from above.” Instead, God condescends to us.[1] Clothed in flesh and blood, He comes as the baby of Bethlehem and the man of Calvary as our Brother and Savior. Luther puts it like this in his 1539 lectures on Genesis 19: “Let us go to the child lying in the lap of His mother Mary and to the sacrificial victim suspended on the cross, and there we shall look into His heart” (LW 3:276-277).[2]

So, Lutheran theology begins not with God in His terrifying majesty but with God in the flesh, God crucified for sinners. Advent is about this trajectory. This can be seen historically from the Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Advent. It is the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:1-9). Jesus is the King who comes to save His people. In his examination of Luther’s Advent sermons, Ulrich Asendorf rightly concludes, “Thus the gospel of Advent is the basic reality of faith. If Christ does not come riding on a donkey, then He still comes more purely, because He comes in the Word.”[3]

God’s condescension to humanity, the Creator becomes a creature to redeem those whom He had created now fallen into sin and made captive to death. The Lord, who is Immanuel, comes to reconcile sinners to His Father by the blood of the cross. Advent is the proclamation of this coming in view of its telos: Lift up your heads for your redemption draws nears (see Luke 21:28). This is the word of promise which permeates Advent, and we are called to hear and believe it. Hence, we begin with the Holy Scriptures.

The Lord who comes is the Word made flesh. He wraps Himself in the swaddling clothes of Holy Scripture to paraphrase Luther.[4] It is the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures which infallibly testify to Him. We know of no other Jesus than the One proclaimed by the Spirit’s inspiration of the prophets and apostles. Advent tutors us in reading the Scriptures coherently in light of the purpose for which they were given by the Triune God. Romans 15:4-13 (the Epistle for Advent II in the one-year lectionary and for Advent III in Year A of the three-year lectionary) identifies the saving purpose of the Bible in verse 4, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”[5] Obviously here Paul is speaking of the Old Testament, for now by extension it applies to the New Testament as well. However, in light of Advent, it is instructive to follow how Paul shows us how to read the Old Testament now that Christ has come.[6] Already in the preamble to Romans, Paul lays out his apostleship in light of the Old Testament: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the Gospel of God which He promised beforehand through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring out the obedience of faith for the sake of His name among all nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:1-6, the Epistle for Advent I in the Three-Year Lectionary, Series A).[7]

The Old Testament is the “Prophetic Word” (II Peter 1:19), the Word of promise which sustained Israel as she awaited the coming of the Messiah. In the mystery of God’s plan, He would come for the Jew but also for the Gentiles that they too, “...might glorify God for His mercy” (Romans 15:9). In a sampling of verses from the Psalms and Isaiah, the Apostle extols the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who extends salvation to the nations: “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy” (Romans 15:8-9). The Spirit who spoke by the prophets inhabits the scriptural words to deliver saving knowledge of Christ to us now.[8] The Scriptures are received in the full confidence of Hebrews 1:1-2, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom He created the world.” [9]

The Spirit who spoke by the prophets inhabits the scriptural words to deliver saving knowledge of Christ to us now.

All this is to say that the Old Testament itself bears witness to Jesus as both Christ and Lord and it cannot be understood apart from Him. Jesus demonstrates this after His resurrection in Luke 24 as He speaks to His fellow-travelers on the road to Emmaus: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into His glory? And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:26-27).[10] Again, on the same day but this time with His disciples, the risen Lord expands this message: “Then He said to them, ‘These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things’” (Luke 24:44-47). Jesus interprets His own passion and resurrection as fulfillment of the totality of the Old Testament and now declares the disciples as witnesses of these things who are to preach it from Jerusalem out to all nations. The pattern of this apostolic proclamation is seen in Peter’s sermons in Acts 2:14-36 and 3:11-26, Stephen’s confession in Acts 7:2-53, and Paul’s sermon in Acts 13:16-41. Jesus’ death and exaltation are in accord with the script of the Old Testament. Christ is not being “read into” the Old Testament. Rather, it is from the Old Testament He is proclaimed.[11] This was done in the apostolic preaching in Acts. It is described by Paul in I Corinthians 15:3-4, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”

The words of Hebrews 1 echo the prologue of John’s Gospel. The Evangelist testifies: “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 anything made that was made” (John 1:1-3). The Word of which John speaks is the eternal Logos, the second person of the Trinity. It is in and through the Word, the eternally begotten Son of the Father that creation was spoken out of nothingness into existence. It was through this Word that the prophets were given speech to proclaim the One who would enter human history as the Word made flesh. The Word made flesh is heard by the apostles, touched with their hands, and seen with their eyes (I John 1:1-3).

The Word made flesh cannot finally be separated from the Holy Scriptures.[12] John reports in John 2:22, in his narrative of Jesus’ discourse regarding the destruction and restoration of the temple and how He was speaking of not of the structure of stone and wood in Jerusalem but of His own body, that after His resurrection, “His disciples remembered that He had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the Word Jesus had spoken.” Scripture and Jesus’ spoken words are put on the same level. As Armin Wenz observes, “The Son of God is not only the true exegete of the Father (John 1:18), but as the Messiah He is also the only true exegete of the Scriptures of the Old Testament (Luke 24:27, 45; John 5:39). Christ is at the same time the goal and end of the Mosaic Law and the fulfillment of the prophetic promises.”[13]

The Word made flesh cannot finally be separated from the Holy Scriptures.

To the Jews who search the Scriptures, Jesus says, “You search the Scriptures because you think that it them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about Me” (John 4:39). Failing to believe Jesus is the One sent from the Father, their unbelief in the words of Moses who they champion is revealed. The Scriptures which cannot be broken (John 10:35) condemn their lack of faith in the Messiah proclaimed by Moses and the prophets.

The words of the Scriptures are the source of life with God. Now Jesus says, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). Thus, Peter confesses, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68). To believe in Him is to believe the Scriptures and so receive the life which they testify, possess, and bestow. To continue in Jesus’ Word is to abide in Him and through His Spirit to know the liberating truth that His Father is our Father (see John 8:31-32). Apart from His Word there is only enslavement to the father of lies. Jesus’ words sanctify His own being in the truth, for His word is truth (John 17:17).

Nearing the culmination of John’s Gospel, the Evangelist says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31). These verses demonstrate, once again, not only the purpose of the Fourth Gospel, but of the Scriptures overall, that we might believe Jesus is the Son of God and through this faith have life in His name. The Scriptures are no dead letter, they carry the very power of the One who inspired them and to whom they testify. It is in and through them that the Spirit promised by the Son, and proceeding from the Father and the Son together, brings to our remembrance all Jesus said and did for us (see John 14:25-26; 16:12-15).