What's Really Behind the First Noel?

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By Rev. Mark H. Creech, Christian Post Columnist
December 29, 2004|8:02 pm

I believe it was in the early days of Rome that the philosopher Carneades endeavored to inculcate the spirit of universal skepticism in the city. He offered to argue alternately both for and against any proposition, declaring the mind only attained true greatness when it was in a state of complete suspense. To settle any matter was a demonstration of ignorance, he thought. Then Cato arose in the senate and urged that Carneades be expelled from the city. Cato referred to the philosopher as a trifler and said the habit of arguing on both sides of everything would introduce hopeless moral corruption into the life of Rome.

I suppose when David Van Biema wrote his recent cover story for Time magazine, "Behind the First Noel," he assumed enough had been said in favor of Jesus' deity. He must have thought someone needed to highlight all the skepticism surrounding the Christmas story and its claims that Jesus was born of a virgin. Van Biema notes that Matthew and Luke are the only gospel writers that tell of Christ's birth, which along with supposed differences in their approach undermine their accounts. He points out that various notable critics have alleged Jesus' birth was the result of Mary's adultery or that she was raped. He reports how some New Testament scholars have argued the theme of the virgin birth was borrowed from the literature of Greek and Roman myths. The article is extremely one-sided and only gives a begrudging nod to the fact that the Christmas story means so much to so many.

But why does the Christmas story -- the account of incarnate deity -- hold a place of adoration in the hearts of millions throughout the world? I suggest it is because the evidence in favor of its truth claims far outweighs the declarations of skeptics. What is more, it addresses the deepest longings of the human soul.

For years liberal scholars have assumed there are errors in Matthew and Luke's narratives of the nativity. But none have ever really been proven. In a tremendous article titled, "Christmas, Newsweekly Style," Robert Knight of the Culture and Family Institute addresses the same allegations not only in Van Biema's piece in Time, but also a similar cover story recently published in Newsweek. Knight writes: "There are long answers to each and every assertion, but here are the short ones: The Gospels are complimentary, reporting on Jesus' birth and life much as the same event can be viewed from several different angles. They hold together marvelously and cohesively. What appear to be contradictions turn out to be different pieces of the puzzle."

Moreover, to suggest the accounts of Matthew and Luke are not trustworthy because they are the only Gospels that refer to the virgin birth, is to miss the emphasis of other key passages throughout the Scripture that refer to Christ's deity. In the Old Testament, Isaiah and Micah foretell the Incarnation. Isaiah declares, "Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (Is. 7:14). Although some scholars have argued over the meaning of the word "virgin," claiming it simply refers to a "young woman"; the fact that the name "Immanuel," which means "God with us" is part of the same prophecy, clarifies the birth described was to be a supernatural one. Micah predicts: "But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose going forth have been from old, from everlasting" (Mi. 5:2). In the New Testament, Gospel writers Mark and John refer to Christ's deity. Mark speaks of Jesus as the "Son of God" (Mk. 1:1) and then describes His miracles, which demonstrate His power as the Almighty. John's Gospel begins by referring to Jesus as God: "The Word was God" (Jn. 1:1) -- and ends with the very same thought: "My Lord and my God" (Jn. 20:28). The apostle Paul speaks of Jesus, arguing, "But when the fullness of time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman ..." (Gal. 4:4) -- a reference clearly denoting Christ's supernatural birth. This is just to mention a few texts that substantiate that Jesus is God wrapped in humanity.

Of course, many argue the New Testament writers present Jesus as deity because they needed this angle to connect with their audience and establish a new religion. This would be a legitimate argument were it not so bankrupt of evidence to support it. In fact, the evidence is clearly on the other side. Its not simply what the New Testament writers said about Jesus that affirm his Incarnation, it's the extra-biblical data that also proves it.

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The late great historian, Arnold J. Toynbee, did extensive research on various religious figures that were supposedly "saviors of society." In the sixth volume of his magnum opus Study of History, Toynbee says of Christ: "When we first set out on this quest we found ourselves moving in the midst of a mighty marching host; but as we have pressed forward on our way the marchers, company by company, have been falling out of the race. The first to fail were the swordsmen, the next the archaists, the next the futurists, the next the philosophers, until at length there were no more human competitors left in the running. In the last stage of all, our motley host of would-be saviors, human and divine, has dwindled to a single company of none but gods; and now the strain has been testing the staying power of these last remaining runners, notwithstanding their superhuman strength. At the final ordeal of death, few, even of these would-be-savior-gods, have dared to put their title to the test by plunging into the icy river. And now as we stand and gaze with our eyes fixed upon the farther shore, a single figure rises from the flood, and straightway fills the horizon. There is the Savior; 'and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand; he shall see of the travail of his soul and shall be satisfied.'" Indeed, who but God could do what Jesus did? There is none to compare to Him. The historical evidence is unmistakably on the side of the assertion that Jesus is Lord.

When it comes to the issue of Christ's person, one cannot be like Carneades and have it both ways. Either Jesus was born of a virgin or He wasn't. Either He qualifies as God and is able to take away sin, or He cannot. Either Christ is the God-man -- perfect in character as the sinless and unblemished "lamb of God," sacrificed on the cross for the sins of the world -- or He is simply another martyr. There is no middle ground -- no place for neutrality; the choice must be made. And there lies the real struggle concerning Christ; making a decision about who He is, standing on one side or the other, has tremendous ethical implications. Jesus said, "He that believeth on Him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already" (Jn. 3:18). In other words, to believe in Christ's Lordship is to be saved; to deny it leaves us with -- to borrow from Cato -- "hopeless moral corruption."

This is why so many people embrace the wonder of the Christmas story. It speaks to the great longings of the human heart -- to know God; to be freed from guilt; to be assured of a better life beyond this one. No doubt this is why even Van Biema acknowledges that when the angel in Christmas pageants intone, "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord," doubts tend to recede as "hearts hear a simple but joyous proclamation of salvation."

 

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