Advent is a time to immerse ourselves in the reality of Jesus’ coming—in history, in our lives, and in the future. It is also an opportunity to step back and reflect on the reasons why He came.
Evangelical Protestantism tends to give one reason: to save us from the penalty for our sins. The Catholic tradition has several. A patristic answer would be that Jesus came to unite God to man. A medieval Catholic might say that it was to die and to institute the sacraments and the Church. More recently, in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI said that Jesus brought us God.
All of those are valid explanations for why Jesus came. But what were Jesus’ reasons for coming in His own words? Over the course of the gospels, He offers an intriguing range of reasons.
1. ‘I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!’ – Luke 12:49
This statement, so jarring and enigmatic, both inspires us and instills fear. There are many ways to interpret the fire. It can be seen as judgment, which is certainly part of Christ’s mission on earth. Fire is also purifying, as several commentators have noted. But, most importantly, fire is associated with God’s divine being, from the fire on top of Mount Sinai to the tongues of fire that descended at Pentecost. As one nineteenth century Anglican commentator, Alexander Maclaren, so beautifully puts it,
We have here one of the rare glimpses which our Lord gives us into His inmost heart, His thought of His mission, and His feelings about it.
He does not kindle it simply in humanity, but He launches it into the midst of humanity. It is something from above that He flings down upon the earth. So it is not merely a quickened intelligence, a higher moral life, or any other of the spiritual and religious transformations which are effected in the world by the mission of Christ that is primarily to be kept in view here, but it is the Heaven-sent cause of these transformations and that flame. If we catch the celestial fire, we shall flash and blaze, but the fire which we catch is not originated on earth. In a word it is God’s Divine Spirit which Christ came to communicate to the world.
Fittingly, this divine fire is also associated with the burning love we have for God and sharing Him with others. As St. Catherine of Siena said, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”
2. ‘I came into the world as light, so that everyone who believes in me might not remain in darkness.’ – John 12:46
In his commentary on the Gospel of John, St. Augustine sees the light primarily in reference to being enlightened about who God is. He connects this verse with Jesus’ statement to His disciples that they are the light of the world, in Matthew 5:14. So, according to Augustine, there are lights and then there is the Light:
Such a statement, I maintain, can nowhere be met with. All the saints, therefore, are lights, but they are illuminated by Him through faith; and every one that becomes separated from Him will be enveloped in darkness. But that Light, which enlightens them, cannot become separated from itself; for it is altogether beyond the reach of change. We believe, then, the light that has thus been lit, as the prophet or apostle: but we believe him for this end, that we may not believe in that which is itself enlightened, but, with him, on that Light which has given him light; so that we, too, may be enlightened, not by him, but, along with him, by the same Light as he.
Jesus description Himself as the Light also confirms His identity as God. Note Augustine’s language, which strongly insinuates both Jesus’ relationship with the Father and His unchanging nature as God: But that Light, which enlightens them, cannot become separated from itself; for it is altogether beyond the reach of change. The Nicene Creed seems to pick up on this use of light as an image for God when it declares that Jesus is ‘God from God, light from light, true God from true God.’
Such language not only draws us upward in contemplation of God. It also calls us to action. Thanks to Augustine’s comparison with Matthew, we can see Jesus words in John as a calling to us to become little lights in the darkness.
3. ‘I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.’ – John 10:10
The vision that Jesus has here of His mission is so much richer and broader than what some Christians say it is. Yes, Jesus saves us. But this is where the evangelical Protestant account falls short. Because we are not simply saved from something. We are also saved for something. And that something is abundant life. Again: Jesus came not only to save us from death but to give us a new life. In theological terms, we could describe it as participation in the inner life of the Trinity. In an eschatological context, we could say it is the joy of the beatific vision we will enjoy in heaven as we both rest in Him and journey to know Him ever more deeply. In the language of the virtues, we could say an abundant life is one that is large in loving.
4. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. – Matthew 10:34
This one is harder to explain than the fire-casting verse above. To understand it, we have to dig deep into Scripture. Jesus is likely speaking in metaphorical terms since he rebukes Peter for drawing his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the midst of its well-known exposition on spiritual arm, Ephesians 6 identifies the “sword of the Spirit” as the “word of God” (verse 17). Hebrews 4:12 expands upon this:
Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.
One level, Ephesians and Hebrews are talking about Scripture itself. But we should also understand the ‘word of God’ as the Word Incarnate. The next verse in Hebrews supports this interpretation, referring to the ‘word of God’ as ‘Him’:
No creature is concealed from Him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must render an account.
Revelation 1:16 offers further confirmation in its depiction of Jesus as having “a sharp, double-edged sword” coming out of his mouth. (Note that this passage also employs images of fire and light to describe Jesus!)
Clearly there is a sense in which Jesus is ‘divisive.’ To paraphrase St. Paul, the cross is a stumbling block to those who cannot accept it. The ultimate division is between heaven and hell, and between those who accept Jesus and those who do not. The Good News is that Jesus came to give us a choice.