“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior" (Luke 2:11).
We all have Christmas pageant memories of this verse. But what does Savior mean anyway, in relation to Jesus Christ, and to us?
Luke is the only Gospel writer to relate the story of the shepherds on the hillside and the angelic announcement of the Savior (Luke 2:1-20). Savior carries the sense of one who grants healing and wholeness. But to get at this we need to back up a couple thousand years.
Our word "savior" is rooted in the Greek soter, meaning one who rescues or delivers. In the New Testament it carries a general meaning of one who saves us.
Now here's the curious point. Not only is soter not often found in the New Testament but the early church initially chose not to use it in the same breath with Jesus Christ.
At that time the term was in vogue among pagan communities as a title for various deities and deified heroes. Several kings of Egypt and Syria used soter as part of their name, setting themselves up as the savior of their people and nations against invaders. Ironically, Caesar Augustus, Roman emperor when Jesus was born, was hailed as savior in celebrations of his birth. A very different kind of savior than the one we celebrate.
Aware of this spin, the early church didn't use soter until late in the second century. By then Christianity was more firmly established, and the title was liberally applied to Jesus.
Through it, the church found a powerful image to declare what it had always proclaimed: Jesus Christ is the savior of the world, who comes to restore our broken relationship with God, to save us from the power of sin, death and the devil, to make all things new.
Whether announced by a robed child on Christmas Eve or in Handel's glorious Messiah, the title is inexhaustible. Interpreters continue to struggle with its full import — calling him redeemer, healer, one who makes us whole, who gives new life.
Whatever else we say about him, Jesus is savior. Consistently. At every moment. In every situation. Always. Forever.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers