“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7).
Swaddling cloths are still in use today. With a few deft tucks, a pediatric nurse can swaddle a baby in seconds. It looks easy, but as overconfident new fathers soon find out, good swaddling technique takes a lot of practice. The objective is to surround the baby’s body with cloth, while leaving the head free. Doctors think this comforts the baby by recreating the sensation of being in the womb. Swaddling also restricts a baby’s startle reflex, which helps maintain unbroken sleep.
Is there anything more vulnerable, more dependent, than a swaddled baby? The hospital nurse described our swaddled son as a “baby burrito.” The only things swaddled babies can do are rock a little from side to side, thump their feet a bit, and—as parents well know—cry loudly in the middle of the night. A swaddled infant is a picture of impotence.
It’s therefore breathtaking to think that the second person of the Trinity was himself swaddled. The One through whom all things were made, and who controls all things by his sovereign power, allowed his incarnate limbs to be overpowered by the swaddling cloths.
I once stayed in a guest room with an impressive drum kit. My host told me it was his son’s, and he described the huge volume of sound his son could make with the cymbals crashing, the bass drum thudding, and all the other drums having their say. But then my host said that when his son plays the drums in church, he sometimes does no more than mark out the rhythm with a steady tap. A similar restraint was on display when the incarnate Son of God was swaddled. “All things were made through him” (John 1:3)—what an explosion of matter! And yet the Maker of everything was willingly wrapped in cloth, his infant heart beating like the faint tapping of a drum.
Was the Baby Aware of His Power?
As we contemplate the swaddled Son of God, we can’t help wondering if he knew that he possessed omnipotent strength.
At first, we might conclude he didn’t know. We’re told in Luke 2:52, after all, that Jesus “grew in wisdom.” Mark 13:32 is similar: speaking of his future return, Jesus says, “Concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Those verses would imply that the infant Jesus knew as little as any other baby.
And yet in addition to omnipotence, the divine-human baby also possessed omniscience (knowledge of everything), along with all the other attributes that come with being fully God. Simply saying he knew no more than other babies endangers that essential truth.
The problem isn’t solved by saying, “According to his human nature Jesus didn’t know, but according to his divine nature he did.” On one level that’s correct. But we can’t leave things there, because Jesus’s two natures don’t produce two persons. John Calvin wisely warns against devising “a double Christ” (Institutes, II. xiv. 4). It’s therefore perfectly acceptable to ask whether the single Christ knew about his redemptive powers while still an infant.
In his commentary on the synoptic Gospels, Calvin explains that Jesus didn’t know the date of his return because “the divine nature was in a state of repose, and did not at all exert itself.” If the same was true when Christ was a baby, it would mean he wasn’t at that time aware of the divine attributes he fully possessed.
Theologians disagree about the specifics of how Christ’s divine life was limited by his human nature. But there is broad agreement that some limiting—we might even say swaddling—of his divine life was a necessary consequence of the incarnation (see Phil. 2:5–8).
Babies eventually grow up and sleep with their arms free. Decades later, though, Jesus would again be swaddled. He was bound when he was arrested in Gethsemane (John 18:12); he may have remained bound throughout his interrogation by Annas; he was certainly bound when Annas sent him to Caiaphas for further questioning (John 18:24). Once again, we marvel at the patience of the omnipotent Son, who freely let his “mighty hand and outstretched arm” (Deut. 7:19) be physically restrained by wicked men.
But worse binding was still to come. When Jesus was crucified, his arms and legs were pinned by long nails to the wood. Mary had bound Jesus’s infant limbs as an act of love; the binding at his death was an act of murderous hate. And yet those hours of agony, when Jesus could not move his limbs, were central to his mission on earth. Christ entered the world to provide forgiveness through his blood (Eph. 1:7; 1 Tim. 1:15). Those who trust in him are saved by that ransom he came to pay (Mark 10:45).
And there was a final swaddling. Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’s lifeless body and bound it in linen cloths (John 19:40). For three days his limbs were restrained, just as they had been when he was an infant. But these cloths could not hold back omnipotence. Don Carson observes, “Jesus’s resurrection body apparently passed through his grave-clothes, spices and all, in much the same way that he later appeared in a locked room.” Jesus’s victory over the grave was so great that he didn’t need to break the bonds of death; he could simply slip through them, leaving behind a human-shaped linen shell that made Peter marvel (Luke 24:12).
Isaiah promised that God would “tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms” (Isa. 40:11). What did it take for a pure God to carry sinners? The rest of Scripture makes it plain: to carry his people, God had to take on human flesh and let his arms be swaddled. Because the omnipotent arms were bound, they can carry us now.