A Virgin Birth—Really?
- Alistair Begg Truth for Life
- 2016 2 Dec
Perhaps this is where you struggle with the Christian faith. You are prepared to accept Jesus as a great teacher, a religious leader, or a brilliant philosopher. You are prepared to accept that he spoke for God, perhaps. But you struggle to accept that he is God—that as Mary and Joseph peered into the manger, they were looking at the eternal Son of God. You struggle with the idea of a virgin birth and a miraculous incarnation.
Well, if your starting point is that there is no God, then the incarnation question is irrelevant. If there is no God, he could not have been born as a baby in Bethlehem. But if your starting point is that there is (or even that there might be) a God who created the entire universe, then surely he is capable of entering his universe.
Why would we be surprised that he can do what he wants to do? After all, in the last century or so humanity has worked out how to bring about conception without sexual intercourse. A hundred years ago, that idea would have seemed impossible and not worthy of being believed. Now it seems plausible and obvious. If doctors can do it in their way, do we really want to say that God cannot do it in his? God the Son taking flesh is a mystery that we will never understand. But not being able to understand how God became one of us is not proof that he did not become one of us.
Of course God’s ways are mysterious and at times in- explicable to us! He would not be much of a God if our limited minds could reason out everything about him.
No, this is mystery, because it is divinity; it is God— but it is also history. Heaven is breaking into earth. The shepherds would find the Creator of the universe wrapped in strips of cloth. Here is the answer to the human predicament, the solution to our slavery to sin and our separation from God. God bridged the gap by coming from heaven to earth. This is how much the mighty God cares about us. Love was when God spanned the gulf. Love was when God became a man. Love was when God surprised those he had created by being born as one of them—as a baby.
The God of Surprises
But that is not the only surprise. The place where God’s Son was born is also a surprise, and the people to whom God sent the angels is a third surprise. And they show us something of what God is like.
First, look where the God-child is. “You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” It was not unusual to have a baby in swaddling cloths. It was unusual to lay a baby in a food trough.
In human terms, the reason why Mary had her child in a shack (or very possibly a cave) used for sheltering animals was straightforward. In distant Rome the emperor, Caesar Augustus, had ordered that a census be taken, obliging Mary and Joseph to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and there was no room for them to stay anywhere else. Augustus meant “worthy of adoration.” According to an inscription on a stone carved in around 9 BC and found in a marketplace in what is now Turkey, Augustus’ birth “gave the whole world a new aspect.” He was regarded as a “Savior.” He encouraged the worship of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, as a god, and allowed himself to be styled as “the son of God.” So great was his power and his impact that the inscription continued that “from his birth a new reckoning of time must begin.”
And so the shepherds must surely have been struck by how vastly different this child in a manger was from the power and majesty of the Roman Emperor, from this Caesar Augustus figure—from the person who established the glory of his name and the might of his empire at the head of his armies, and who could move his subject peoples around at the stroke of a pen. And yet here in this food trough lay the one who really is worthy of adoration, whose birth changes everything, who came as Savior and who really is the Son of God— and whose birth-date is the way we still reckon our time 2,000 years later.
He was not born to a queen, in a palace. He was born to a girl, in a cave, and his cradle was a food trough. The Son of God came to be just like us, among us, rather than to lord it over us. If you have known poverty, so has he. If you have known what it feels like to be an outsider, so has he. His was not a gilded, protected existence. He knows what life is like. As Jesus himself put it when he had grown up, he “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10 v 45).
The second surprise is where the announcement was made. God did not make his announcement to Augustus. It came to a group of poor shepherds. We might expect that God would be most interested in those who had status, those who were powerful, those who were mighty. In actual fact, throughout Luke’s Gospel, we discover that again and again he goes for the least and last and the left out. He works in a way that we might not anticipate him working. And we have to allow him to surprise us: to be different than a god we would make up, and to work differently than how we would if we were God. This is the real God, and you and I are not him. People find it perfectly easy to tolerate Jesus just to the point where he contravenes their expectations—and then they tend to have a very different response.
So that’s the message of the angel—but no sooner have the shepherds picked themselves up off the ground than the reinforcements appear. The Redeemer has come and the angels of heaven are there to announce it for him.
And the choir declares what this baby will achieve: “On earth peace.” Augustus had established what was known as the “Pax Romana”—an empire at peace and guaranteeing safety (unless you happened to be a slave or a rebel). But the peace of Rome was about to be dwarfed by the peace of God. Epictetus, a first-century philosopher, observed rightly that:
“While the emperor may give peace from war on land and sea, he is unable to give peace from passion, grief and envy; he cannot give peace of heart, for which man yearns for more than even outward peace.”
Caesar Augustus could not transform any of his subjects’ hearts or change any of their eternal futures.
But, the angels say, this baby could. Here is an announcement of a peace that goes deep within, and lasts beyond the grave—the peace “for which man yearns.” The peace of God that invades a life is based on the discovery of peace with God.
Content taken from Christmas Playlist: Four Songs that Bring You to the Heart of Christmas by Alistair Begg. ©2016 by Alistair Begg. Used by permission of The Good Book Company, thegoodbook.com.
Alistair Begg is the founder of Truth for Life radio program and Senior Pastor at Parkside Church, Cleveland, Ohio.
Image courtesy: Thinkstockphotos.com
Publication date: December 2, 2016