Friday, December 23, 2016

On the Virgin Birth

Recently, a popular evangelical preacher, Andy Stanley, dismissed the importance of the virgin birth by claiming that “Christianity doesn’t hinge on the truth or even the stories around the birth of Jesus.”

Stanley is the founder of North Point Ministries, a network of six churches in and around Atlanta, attended by 30,000 people each week. In a message he gave on December 3, he said:

A lot of people just don’t believe it [i.e., the virgin birth]. And I understand that, and maybe, you know, the thought is, hey, you know, they had to come up with some myth about the birth of Jesus to give him street cred, you know, later on. And maybe that’s where that came from.

He stops short of claiming this as his own view. But he goes on to say something which seems to indicate he believes the position has some plausibility:

It’s interesting because Matthew gives us a version of the birth of Christ; Luke does; but Mark and John, they don’t even mention it. And a lot has been made of that.

Regardless of whether or not he’s suggesting that he finds this reasoning plausible, it’s true that many have argued the case in just this way:  “It’s only Matthew and Luke who mention the virgin birth.”

One wonders how many times, and by how many different people (according to this line of reasoning), God must say a thing before we have a duty to believe it. If twice is insufficient, how about three times? What if, say, Mark had also mentioned it? Would that have been enough? Or must John have done so too? Maybe we wouldn’t be warranted to believe it unless it had been mentioned in all four Gospels plus one or two of Paul’s letters? But then what are to make of the fact that Peter is silent on the subject? Does his failure to weigh in on the matter throw it into doubt?

God forbid! (As a certain apostle might say.) Among men, the testimony of two or three witnesses is necessary to establish a controversial point, but one word from God is enough. He “is not a man that he should lie” (Num. 23:19). If Adam and Eve had thought of it, it would surely have done them no good to plead, “But Lord, you only told us once.”

Stanley continues by discussing what he believes to be the relative importance of Jesus’ birth and his resurrection:

If somebody can predict their own death and then their own resurrection, I’m not all that concerned about how they got into the world, because the whole resurrection thing is so amazing, and in fact…and you should know this…that Christianity doesn’t hinge on the truth or even the stories around the birth of Jesus; it really hinges on the resurrection of Jesus.”

The importance of the resurrection should, of course, never be underestimated; but neither should the importance of the virgin birth. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, but by means of ordinary human reproduction, then he was only a man and we must therefore reject the numerous passages that bear witness to his deity (e.g., Jn. 1:1; Rom. 9:5; Phil 2:6; Col. 2:9). And if he was only a man, then he was a sinful man (Rom. 3:23), and we must reject all those passages that affirm otherwise (e.g., Heb. 4:15; 7:26; 1 Pet. 1:22; 1 Jn. 3:5). And if he was a sinful man, then he was doomed to die for his own sins and therefore couldn’t die for ours.

But if by some further convoluted reasoning he is said to have been sinless (even though he was an ordinary man), he would still have been unable to make atonement for our sins because the death of an ordinary human being, even a sinless one, would be of insufficient worth to “take away the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29). It is the incarnation (God becoming man, Jn. 1:14) that makes our salvation possible. It is our Lord’s humanity that qualifies him, in his death, to act on man’s behalf; and it is his deity that makes his death of infinite worth. If we reject the virgin birth, we reject not only the reality, but the very possibility of our redemption.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"Why lies he in such mean estate?"

This line from the Christmas carol, What Child is This?, draws attention to the seeming incongruity of the Son of God being laid in a manger. Have you ever considered how the whole narrative of our Lords birth shows us that God delights to do great things by humble means? 

Think, for example, of this prophecy from the book of Micah, delivered some 700 years before the event:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
           who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
           one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
           from ancient days (Micah 5:2)

There are several important truths that can be gleaned from this prophecy, but one that is often overlooked is what it says about Bethlehem itself, namely that it was “too little to be among the clans of Judah” (v. 2a). Literally, it reads, “too little to be among the thousands of Judah.” The tribes of Israel were divided for military purposes into thousands, with a head or a chief over each thousand. These thousands were reckoned according to city and town. But Bethlehem was too little to be reckoned among them. It was a tiny little town; a village, really—and a rather obscure one at that. It had nothing to commend itself as Messiah’s birthplace except that it was the birthplace of the great King David. Only in this did it have any significance. It never was a city of any importance, either before or after David. It wasn’t a commercial center. It wasn’t politically influential. It had no strategic significance. It was a sleepy little farming village.

We might have thought the Messiah should have been born in some great city, Jerusalem perhaps, the center of Israel’s religious life. Jerusalem was known as the city of God. It was home to the temple, the place where God had chosen to put his name. It was the center of Israel’s economic activity, too. It had a market that ranked in the top ten of the Roman Empire. It was the center of Israel’s political life, as well, the place where the Great Sanhedrin met, the place where Herod had his palace and held his court, and where the later procurators would exercise their authority.

One would think, then, that the Messiah would be born in Jerusalem. But God loves to do great things by humble means. Jesus would not be born in a great metropolis, but in a sleepy little village of no significance.

Not only so, but he would be born to a poor virgin, engaged to be married to an ordinary workman, a carpenter. They were nobodies. They were unknown outside their own family and community. The movers and shakers of Jewish society certainly took no notice of them. When the magi came from the east to inquire about the birth of the Messiah, the Jewish leaders were able to determine that he was to be born in Bethlehem, but no one seemed to know to whom he would be born. Joseph and Mary both were descendants of David. But the ancient and once glorious family of David had been cut down to a stump (Isa. 11:1). So much so, that his descendants, even Joseph, the very heir to the throne, was unknown in Israel.

Joseph and Mary’s humble means is amply illustrated in the offering that Mary brought for her cleansing after giving birth. She gave the poor woman’s sacrifice (comp. Lk. 2:22-24 with Lev. 12:6-8). 

God delights to do great things by humble means.

Consider, too, that Jesus was not born in the comforts of a palace, but in the filth and stink of a stable. He was laid in a manger, not in a bed. There were no trained attendants ministering to him and to his mother; they were surrounded by livestock. Not exactly the kind of entrance into the world one might expect for the Son of God. But this is how God would have it. And it’s fitting that it should be so, for it shames and rebukes human pride, the mother of all sin. We put so much stock in pomp and circumstance, in glitz and glamour, in noise and attention. But here, in a remote corner of the Empire, nearly as far from Rome as it was possible to get, in a sleepy little village, in a stable, laid in a manger, was the promised Messiah, who was destined to rule the world.