One of the occupational hazards of a) being interested in what the Bible says about things and b) being an impending dad (my wife is due to give birth to our first child in March, so if things go quiet here, that’ll be why) is that you occasionally get fascinated by words in the Bible.
Consider this famous passage from Luke 18:15-17, which is so often used and misused to justify all sorts of things:
“People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.””
I’m not interested today, though in what it means to have faith like a child, but instead to focus in on one little word. ‘brephos’, translated ‘babies’ here, and infants in other translations. It is fascinating to note that in this passage both children and babies are mentioned – and that Jesus is keen to be with them, he has interest in them. In Luke’s gospel, we also see the word translated ‘babies’ here in an earlier context. In Luke 1:39-45 we read:
“At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Here, the greek word ‘brephos’ is translated as baby – but there is a big difference to the babies that the adult Jesus is interacting with later on in Luke’s gospel.
Here we have an affirmation of the humanity of the unborn.
James Edwards, in his Pillar New Testament Commentary on this passage, writes:
“The kicking infant and filling with Holy Spirit signify divine causation. The Greek word for ‘leaped’… connotes the skipping and frisking of sheep and young animals, thus ‘leaped for joy’ in verse 44. The infant in Elizabeth’s womb kicks when hearing Mary’s greeting; the announcement of the birth of the Messiah thus causes John delight even in utero, and his reflex announces the eschatological joy coming into the world in Jesus“
This is not the first time that unborn children have been key actors in the biblical narrative. In his commentary on the same passage, Darrell L. Bock writes:
“Much in the passage parallels Genesis 25:22-26, though there are some major differences. In Genesis there is internal tension as Jacob and Esau struggle for supremacy in the womb. Here there is a total absense of tension: John leaped for joy at the presence of Jesus’ mother, who bears Jesus in her womb. John’s ministry starts very early; he is a forerunner even as he responds in Elizabeth’s womb…“
This little word ‘brephos’, then, points perhaps to why Bible believing Christians have such a strong opposition to the practice of abortion. The words of Psalm 139 famously speak of God forming people in their mothers womb, intimately shaping the image bearer from conception, in a way that parallels God’s gracious involvement in our life after birth. Yet I think that opposition is wrapped up in something else that is going on in Luke 1, the promise of a world where everything that is wrong is made right. The promise of the Kingdom fo GOd.
This little word ‘brephos’, too, points towards an emotion that is core to Christian experience yet also overshadowed. Most people, on learning that my wife and I are expecting a child, share our joy. Yet for those who have lost children, or for whatever reason cannot have children, or don’t expect to be in a situation to have one, the news of our joy can have the opposite effect. This arguably makes perfect sense. That sadness is in contrast to the joy that will be enjoyed when the Kingdom of God fully comes. In Revelation 21:4 we read of God, that “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” The social complexity of feelings about birth now will pass away. The pain and controversy of abortion will pass away. These things, part of the reality of our now and not yet world, will pass away, to be replaced by joy.
This little word ‘brephos’, describing John the Baptist, points us away from the messiness of human life now and onward to something else. Darrell Bock reminds us that “The basic response to the arrival of Jesus onto the scene of history should be joy“.
I wonder what your thoughts are about that?