How the Little Lord Jesus Asleep on the Hay Accomplishes Salvation: Understanding the Work of Christ in His Infancy           

Cory Thompson

(Editor Note: In this special year-end article, Cory Thompson connects some important biblical doctrines to the birth of Christ. We hope it fuels clearer thinking about this part of Scripture in the future!)

The narratives surrounding the Christmas event are rarely read with Jesus in his infancy, childhood, and adolescence accomplishing salvation. If anything, the Christ-child is idle, merely an infant in a manger. The Christmas hymn, “Silent Night,” gives this picture, “the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.” Consider also the words “Joy Has Dawned,” “cling now to a mother’s breast vulnerable and helpless.” What is the “little Lord Jesus” actually doing for our salvation? What can he do in this vulnerable and helpless state? The cross captures our attention as it relates to the work of salvation, as it should. Yet, there is more to the work of Jesus than his cross: there is his life and ministry, which includes his infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Jesus did not sidestep this period of life on his way to the cross. What is it about all of Jesus’ life, including his infancy, that is necessary for salvation?

The passive and active obedience of Christ is a helpful framework when thinking about the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus in his infancy. Passive obedience is Christ bearing the penalty for the failure of humanity to obey the Law, and active obedience refers to Christ’s perfect obedience of the Law. Both are often neglected when considering the work of Christ in his infancy. His active obedience is often thought of in regard to the adult life and ministry of the Lord Jesus, and passive obedience is confined to the cross alone. John Murray rightly states, “We cannot allocate certain phases or acts of our Lord’s life on earth to active obedience and certain other phases and acts to passive obedience. The distinction between the active and passive obedience is not a distinction of periods. It is our Lord’s whole work of obedience in every phase and period that is described as active and passive…”[1] Every part of Jesus’ life is important for salvation, including his infancy.

The Passive Obedience of the Christ Child

The passive obedience of Christ, his sin-bearing work, begins with the incarnation. The humiliation of the Lord Jesus for sin does not start at the cross that is where it climaxes and ends. Paul provides this trajectory in Philippians 2:6-8. The text begins with an assertion that the Lord Jesus is in the form of God or, to say it another way, he is truly God. Every title, work, and communicable and incommunicable attribute of God is true of Jesus. Jesus is God, and God is Jesus. Paul then states that “he made himself or no reputation,” or as it can also be translated, “he emptied himself” (v. 7). This reflects the Lord Jesus’ incarnation and true humanity. Now, this statement in no way implies an emptying of divinity. It’s not a statement of negation but one of addition. In addition to his deity, the Lord Jesus became truly man. The emptying and making himself of no reputation is further communicated by the fact that Jesus took on the form of a slave and was obedient to death, “even death of the cross” (v. 8).

What does this have to do with the passive obedience of Christ in his infancy? Consider the profound implication of the Sovereign Creator God taking on human nature as an embryo, a fetus, and an infant. Think about what it means for the one who effortlessly spoke all of creation into existence with mere words but only cries and coos as an infant. Consider the God whom Isaiah saw as high and lifted up, the train of his robe filling the Temple, and seraphim flying back and forth crying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory” (Is 6:3), and now that same God is lying in a feeding trough for animals. The words “he made himself of no reputation” are hard for human minds to grasp. The notion that the God of glory would descend to such levels and become man is astounding. The distance between God and man is unfathomable. His sin-bearing sacrifice doesn’t begin at the cross it begins when he “made himself of no reputation.” It begins with his conception and continues into his infancy until it culminates with his obedience “to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”

The Active Obedience of the Christ Child

Jesus lived his life in active obedience, fulfilling the Law’s demands, from the cradle to the cross for salvation. His obedient life was a substitute for our disobedient life. Acceptance before God requires absolute righteousness. And Jesus lived a life in perfect righteousness and obedience before God in his humanity. He lived a life that Adam did not, and you and I cannot. It was by “one man’s disobedience many were made sinners so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19).

The Virgin Birth and Active Obedience

The virgin birth sets Jesus apart for a sinless and fully obedient life. When speaking of this topic, it must be done with care. The New Testament never explicitly connects the miraculous conception with Jesus’ sinlessness. It does, however, shed some significant light on the uniqueness of Jesus in his humanity.

There are at least two ways the virgin birth sets Jesus apart from all other humanity, thus leading to a sinless, obedient life. First, there is an emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in conception.[2] The humanity of the Christ-child was created by the Holy Spirit, rather than the natural sexual act, and thus, in his humanity, Jesus took on all the essential character that God creates: it was “very good” (cf. Gen 1:31). So, the emphasis falls on the divine creativity. This means if there were any sinfulness in the humanity of Christ, it would be attributed to the Holy Spirit, the Creator, which is unthinkable. Just as God made the first man, Adam, upright, even though he was formed from dust, so he made the last man, Jesus, upright, even though he was born from a sinful mother. The angel, Gabriel, told Mary that her child is “the Holy One who is to be born” (Lk 1:35). The trajectory at conception is set, he is called the “Holy One.”

The second connection between the virgin birth and the sinless, obedient life of Christ is how, through this unique birth, Christ stands outside the guilt of Adam.[3] Paul says, “By one man’s disobedience, many were made sinners.” In other words, all people are born as sinners, it is a part of our nature. One of the factors to help us understand how Christ avoids the sin nature is the virgin birth. When Adam had children, they were in his own image (Gen 5:3). Every person who is born naturally is a branch of the image of Adam. But with Christ, this is not so, he was not born out of the image of Adam. His birth was different; it was miraculous. The birth of Christ, however, does stand in a similarity to Adam in that they were both made by God’s creative power, thus sinless. Adam was formed from the dust, and life was breathed into him. Jesus was born when the Holy Spirit came upon Mary and overshadowed her. The language “Son of God” also emphasizes this. It is said of Jesus in Luke 1:35 and of Adam in Luke’s genealogy account in (Lk 4:38). Adam is called the Son of God to emphasize the first man created in God’s image. It was God who formed him.

The virgin birth is a sign which indicates the mystery of the incarnation of the Son, marking him as unique from all humanity. Both the virgin birth at the start of Jesus’s life and the empty tomb and ascension at the conclusion bear witness that his life is truly unique from all of humanity. The virgin birth points to Jesus’s sinlessness, who will live an obedient life on behalf of a people who cannot.

Active Obedience Demonstrated in Jesus’ Infancy and Childhood

The incarnation demands that we take Jesus’ humanity seriously. If Jesus’s entire life was one of total obedience, then his life was one of constant obedience, not just at some moments but always, even in his infancy, childhood, and adolescence. There are several events in Luke’s infancy narrative that portray this obedience. First, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day in accord with Abraham’s covenant and the Law of Moses (Lk 2:21; Gen 17:9-14; Lev 12:3). This ritual act marked Jesus as a member of the covenant community in continuity with the promises given to Abraham.

Second, Jesus is consecrated as the firstborn, fulfilling Exodus 13 and the purification rite of Leviticus 12. Joseph and Mary bring the Christ-child to the Temple for the consecration and offer two turtle doves or pigeons for the purification rite. Luke 2:23 reads that the first-born son is holy to the Lord, reflecting how the Israelites were commanded to set apart the firstborn (Ex 13:22). Throughout Luke, Jesus’s holiness is emphasized. Beginning with “the announcement of his birth as Son of God (1:35) to his presentation in the Temple (2:22-23) to his conflict with demons (4:34), to his identity as the Christ, to his constant filling with guidance by the Holy Spirit (3:14), and even in his death (23:47, Acts 3:14), Jesus is holy: constantly and in every way.”[4] It is interesting how Luke leans upon the language of holiness to describe Jesus’s conformity to the law as a weeks-old child. Jesus was born under the Law in order to fulfill the Law (cf. Gal 4:4).

Third, Jesus demonstrates his obedience in his words and actions as a twelve-year-old in the Temple. The very first time Jesus speaks in Luke’s gospel is as a twelve-year-old boy. The family came to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. When the celebration was over, Joseph and Mary returned, not knowing Jesus was still in Jerusalem. After a day’s journey, they realize Jesus is not with them, and like any concerned parent, they anxiously return to Jerusalem in search of their missing son. To their amazement, they find him in the Temple, astounding the teachers with his perceptive questions. When they confront Jesus as to why he was still there, he responds, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business” (Lk 2:49).[5] The word translated as “must” is telling. It points to Jesus’s awareness of his unique obedience to God the Father, even at twelve. Usually, in Luke, the word denotes the divine necessity of salvation that comes through the actions of Jesus. Jesus uses this word other times regarding his obedience in Luke: “I must preach the kingdom of God” (4:43), “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected, killed, and raised on the third day” (9:22). After the interaction, the text emphasizes that Jesus “was subject to them,” under the authority of Joseph and Mary. Jesus was truly obedient, not just at some moments of his life but always, even as an adolescent boy.

Beginning with his infancy and culminating with the cross event, Jesus accomplishes the total obedience and righteousness God demands. What does God demand? Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount, “You shall be perfect just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mt 5:48). But what God demands, he graciously provides in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. The demand for perfect obedience is ultimately answered by Jesus himself, who opens salvation through his perfect obedience from the cradle to the cross. Jesus was not only a substitute on the cross, dying in our place and taking the penalty for our sins, he was also a substitute in his living, living obediently in perfect righteousness in our place. Jesus did what we could not do, and we receive his perfect obedience by grace through faith.

The Christmas narratives are more than an anthology of Sunday School stories we tell our children. The infant Christ-child is more than a decorative piece in the manger scene. In this period of his life on earth, the work of the Lord Jesus was not inactive. Beginning with conception and infancy, the Lord Jesus was active, vicariously bearing the judgment for our sins and living in full obedience to God for us. May we see the full salvific work of the Lord when we encounter the events of the Christ-child in Scripture this Christmas, and may we have the same response as Simeon, “For my eyes have seen your salvation” (Lk 2:30).

[1] John Murrary, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, (Grand Rapids: Eerdsman, 2015), 16.

[2] Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ: Contours of Christian Theology (Wheaton: IVP, 1998), 40.

[3]Macleod, Person of Christ, 40.

[4] Brandon D. Crowe, The Last Adam: A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 97.

[5] Crowe, Last Adam, 95.


1 Comment

  1. A wonderful and insightful devotional and theology lesson! Thank you, Brother Cory. Your grandfather, Bailey Thompson, would be proud!

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