One New Testament scholar described the Gospel of Mark as a “passion narrative with an extended introduction.” This is why Andreas Köstenberger and I coauthored The Final Days of Jesus: if you want to understand who Jesus is, you have to understand the most important week of his earthly ministry. The Gospel writers, like Jesus himself, set their faces to Jerusalem and refused to look back (Luke 9:51, 53).
But Where Did It All Begin?
But something built into the human spirit wants to go back, to see how it all started. God himself, of course, begins the biblical storyline, “In the beginning” (Gen. 1:1). And the story of Jesus, as the preincarnate word, likewise starts, “In the beginning” (John 1:1).
Although we would never complain about how the Spirit of God chose to guide his inspired writers, we sometimes wish the narrative of Jesus’s first days would slow things down and add some more detail. Obviously we cannot add more chapters to the Bible. God has given us everything we need to worship him in a way that pleases and glorifies his great name and equips us for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). But we can slow down. And we can go deeper. This is where Köstenberger and Stewart, gifted biblical theologians and New Testament scholars, can help us.
Familiarity Breeds Laziness
People say that familiarity breeds contempt, but when it comes to Bible reading, I’ve found that familiarity is more likely to produce laziness. I tend to skim when I already know the story. How many times in my life have I read or heard preached the following familiar words?
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7)
We’ve heard it so many times that we assume we know what it all means.
But then we start to ask questions.
- Who was Caesar Augustus?
- When did he rule?
- Over what exact area did he rule?
- Why did he want all the world to be registered?
- Who was Quirinius?
- Is the Syria in this passage the same as the modern country of Syria?
- Don’t some Bible scholars say that Luke’s history about the timing of the census is inaccurate here?
- Why did Joseph have to go to Bethlehem instead of registering in Nazareth?
- How big was Bethlehem?
- Why did Mary need to go with him?
- And why doesn’t it say she rode on a donkey—is that in another account, or is that just what we’ve seen on TV?
- How exactly is betrothal different from engagement?
- Where is the innkeeper? A
- nd what kind of an “inn” was this—a cave, a room in a house, or an ancient hotel?
These are fourteen questions off the top of my head, and we’ve only covered seven verses. As we keep reading, the questions keep coming. Even though we’ve read or heard it dozens of times, it is humbling to recognize just how much we still don’t know.
The book you hold in your hands has no gimmicks or clever sales pitches. It won’t reveal a “gospel” you never knew. (If it did, you should throw it away [Gal. 1:8].) It doesn’t purport to finally disclose the secrets of Jesus’s childhood or what he did in Egypt. Instead, it takes us back to Scripture, the only infallible source of how God became man and dwelt among us.
I think you will find several benefits in reading The First Days of Jesus:
1. This book can help you slow down.
The biblical narrative contains details that you probably haven’t noticed before. These details reflect historical realities you probably didn’t know before. And these biblical and historical realities have implications for your life that you probably haven’t thought of before. Köstenberger and Stewart guard us from racing through familiar words and guide us in seeing what we have not yet fully seen.
2. This book can help you go deeper.
The incarnation—God become man—is a deep mystery. Pastor-theologian Sam Storms poetically captures some of the paradoxes at play:
The Word became flesh!
God became human!
the invisible became visible!
the untouchable became touchable!
eternal life experienced temporal death!
the transcendent one descended and drew near!
the unlimited became limited!
the infinite became finite!
the immutable became mutable!
the unbreakable became fragile!
spirit became matter!
eternity entered time!
the independent became dependent!
the almighty became weak!
the loved became the hated!
the exalted was humbled!
glory was subjected to shame!
fame turned into obscurity!
from inexpressible joy to tears of unimaginable grief!
from a throne to a cross!
from ruler to being ruled!
from power to weakness!
The wonder of the incarnation deserves a lifetime of thought, and this book is a faithful resource to prompt deeper reflection on the foundation of our salvation.
3. This book can help you make connections.
Even though the Bible devotes only four and a half chapters (out of 1,189) to Jesus’s first days, Köstenberger and Stewart show us that the incarnation is the hinge of redemptive history—with the Old Testament leading up to it and the rest of the New Testament flowing from it. Reading this book will help you see how the whole story line fits together.
C. S. Lewis once confessed that in his own reading, “devotional books” did not produce in his mind and heart the results they promised. He suspected he was not alone: “I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hands.” You may want to contextualize away the pipe depending on your own preferences and convictions, but I think the advice is sound, and I found this to be the case when reading The First Days of Jesus.
This is not the dry-as-dust formula of dumping data and dates onto the pages of a book. This is not a book of theology void of history or a volume of history minus theology. It is a work of confessional theology rooted in historical investigation and devoted to a careful reading of Scripture, all designed to help us worship our God and Savior, Jesus Christ. I hope you find this book as meaningful and fruitful as I did.
Maundy Thursday, 2015
 Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ (1892; repr., Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964), 80.
 Andreas J. Köstenberger and Justin Taylor with Alexander Stewart, The Final Days of Jesus: The Most Important Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).
 C. S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 205.
“This latest work on the incarnation and nativity is an excellent example of serious scholarship served up in a most readable manner. No birth in history had such prophetic preparation, which is a powerful, central theme in these pages that celebrate the start of the greatest life ever lived. This is a welcome antidote to the cheap sensationalism in recent books on Jesus that try to demolish every reason for regarding Christmas as ‘the most wonderful time of the year.'”
Paul Maier, Professor of Ancient History, Western Michigan University; author, In the Fullness of Time
“The First Days of Jesus is a revealing look at the earliest days of Jesus in Matthew, Luke, and John set against some of the skeptical takes on these passages. Add to this a taste of Jewish messianic expectation and you have a nice overview of the start of Jesus’s career and where it fits in God’s plan. Solid yet devotional, it is a great introduction to the first days of our Lord.”
Darrell L. Bock, Executive Director of Cultural Engagement, Howard G. Hendricks Center, and Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary
“The First Days of Jesus combines Scripture passages, historical background, scholarly insight, and practical application to cast Christ’s incarnation in fresh light. Few tasks are more urgent than for today’s Christians worldwide to rediscover and deepen their connections with their origins. This book is a valuable resource for achieving that aim. Like the star of Bethlehem itself, this volume leads those who seek God to find him afresh in the events of Jesus’s historical appearance, the prophecies that preceded, the apostolic testimony that accompanied, and the social world that God split wide open when he sent his Son.”
Robert W. Yarbrough, Professor of New Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary
“Köstenberger and Stewart admirably unpack the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke along with that beautiful first movement of John’s Gospel against both the grand sweep of biblical history and the nitty-gritty details of first-century events and culture. The result may dismantle a few of your nativity-scene notions about the Christmas story even while building up your faith in and commitment to the Word become flesh.”
George H. Guthrie, Benjamin W. Perry Professor of Bible, Union University
“Köstenberger and Stewart provide for us a faithful and useful guide to the early days of Jesus. This book should serve well those desiring to learn about the early chapters in the Gospels and those who desire to preach and teach these narratives.”
Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“Written with exceptional clarity, The First Days of Jesus pays close attention to the key biblical texts on Christ’s nativity in an illuminating way. It deals briefly yet helpfully with critical scholarship and presents the events surrounding Jesus’s conception and birth in both a canonical and a chronological fashion. It addresses unashamedly the difficulties with these birth stories, tackling the problem of variant accounts, the use of sources, the nature of prophecy and typology, and much more. It challenges us readers to respond to the Word of God with the obedience of faith, like Mary did, and with praise, worship, and witness, as the shepherds did. I know of no other book that so masterfully weaves together these infancy narratives on so many fronts. I thoroughly enjoyed it and highly recommend it!”
Gregg R. Allison, Professor of Christian Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“There is more to Christmas than you may think. Cut through the layers of tradition and the fog of nostalgia, and discover the scandal of how it all started. The Bible has more to say about Jesus’s earliest days than you might expect, and this book is a reliable guide.The First Days of Jesus blends world-class scholarship with real-world concern for everyday Christians. Here attention to detail, in the text and in history, complements warm devotion and pastoral care.”
David Mathis, executive editor, desiringGod.org; pastor, Cities Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota
“In this accessible and reliable guide to how the Gospels present the early years of Jesus Christ’s life, Köstenberger and Stewart provide an exceptionally helpful study, informed by the best of modern scholarship. Drawing on what we know of the historical context, they expound with clarity both the meaning of the biblical text and its relevance for modern readers. In doing so, they enable us to grasp afresh how a detailed appreciation of Jesus’s first days contribute significantly to a deeper understanding of his whole life.”
T. Desmond Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies, Union Theological College, Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK
Introduction: Separating Fact from Fiction
Part 1: Virgin-Born Messiah
- The Long-Awaited Messiah: Son of Abraham, Son of David
- God with Us, Born of a Virgin
- Conflict between Two Kings and Two Kingdoms
- Exile, Holocaust, and Nazareth: Prophecies Fulfilled
Part 2: Light of the Nations
- Two Miraculous Conceptions
- God at Work Again at Last! Deliverance for Israel
- Israel’s Restoration
- The Humble King Is Laid in a Manger
- The First Witnesses: Shepherds
- Light of Revelation for the Gentiles: Further Witnesses
Part 3: Incarnate Word
- Preexistence: The Word Was God
- Witness: A Man Named John
- Incarnation: The Word Became Flesh
- Culmination: The Law, Grace, and Truth
- The King’s Rejection and Return
Appendix: Messiah Is Coming! Second Temple Jewish Messianic Expectations
Advent Reading Plan