Jesus: The Birth of a King
By Kedric Webster
Christmas is the time of year when people come together to celebrate with family, friends and other various acquaintances. But, what do we celebrate, exactly? Well, we buy gifts and give them to people; we make fabulous dinners to share with family that have been apart for months or years; we give to various groups that help with feeding the poor No, I didn t did ask what we do, but what do we celebrate? Oh.
Every year we sing Christmas carols like Deck the Halls , Jingle Bells , I m Dreaming of a White Christmas (especially by Bing Crosby), Santa Claus is Coming to Town , etc. And who can forget watching the special programs like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with Burl Ives as the snowman, or A Charlie Brown Christmas where Charlie Brown thinks he s killed the little Christmas tree and laments that he can t do anything right?
We also sing what we call religious songs such as O Come, All Ye Faithful , What Child is This , Hark the Herald Angels Sing , The First Noel , and favorites like Away in a Manger , Silent Night , and Joy to the World. This is a tradition that has been constant for as long as anyone can remember. It almost becomes routine. We sing the songs, we smile for a time, and then the presents are ripped open, the last of the turkey or ham is made into sandwiches or soup and, especially nowadays, we go catch a movie. After that, Christmas passes on just like any other holiday like Memorial Day or New Years.
Going back to the Christmas hymns, do we ever take the time to look at what they really say? Just look at one of the most sung hymns of all time, Silent Night , written in German by Joseph Mohr and translated by John F. Young.
Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon virgin mother and child,
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace, Sleep in heavenly peace.
Yeah, sure, been there, done that, sung it a million times, I remember. All is calm, all is bright, yeah, Round yon virgin moth Virgin? Wait a minute, how is that possible? Isn t this just a song the expresses how we feel this time of year? Yes, it is, but it has a purpose. Everything in the world tells us that it is impossible for a virgin to give birth to a baby. It s irrational, illogical, it just doesn t happen. So why are songs sung about it and the story told every Christmas? Hmmm, good question.
Isaiah 7:14 says, Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. This was written over 700 years before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. About Bethlehem, it was prophesied, But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, From everlasting (Micah 5:2). And then, it was fulfilled:
God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary.
The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."
"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"
The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God."
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.
(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)
And everyone went to his own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.
He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.
An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." (Another birth narrative is found in the Gospel of Matthew.)
Remember the song?
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The Little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head;
The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.
Note how Luke cites a time in history, a Roman census, in telling his version of the birth of Jesus. Caesar Augustus full name was Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavian) and ruled the Roman Empire (which included Palestine) from 31 B.C. to A.D. 14. The Roman Senate gave him the title Augustus, meaning exalted and he ushered in the time of peace known as the Pax Romana, a golden age of literature and architecture. It is very ironic that at the same time, unbeknownst to him and many other important people, one who was called King and Lord was going to be born in a lowly stable amongst a few smelly animals with just some shepherds as witnesses. Phillip Yancey, one of the world's best Christian writers, described it well when he said:
In meek contrast, God s visit to earth took place in an animal shelter with no attendants present and nowhere to lay the newborn king but a feed trough. Indeed, the event that divided history, and even our calendars, into two parts may have had more animal than human witnesses. A mule could have stepped on him.
For just an instant the sky grew luminous with angels, yet who saw that spectacle? Illiterate hirelings who watched the flocks of others, nobodies who failed to leave their names. Shepherds had such a randy reputation that proper Jews lumped them together with the godless, restricting them to the outer courtyards of the temple. Fittingly, it was they whom God selected to help celebrate the birth of one who would be known as the friend of sinners.(1)
So what to make of the virgin birth? Theologically speaking, it was necessary because there could be no blood of original sin within the one to be called the Son of God. Dr. Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary says,
What are modern readers to make of the amazing stories of Christ s virginal conception? How historically reliable are these birth narratives more generally, permeated as they are with miraculous dreams, angels, and a traveling star? Of course if one rules out the supernatural a priori, there is much here that will have to be dismissed or radically reinterpreted. For those open to a God who occasionally intervenes miraculously into his universe, however, several arguments favor the trustworthiness of this material.(2)
Blomberg cites several arguments for the historicity of the virgin birth of Jesus:
1. The people who wrote the stories (Matthew, also called Levi, one of the original 12 disciples and Luke, the physician and a contemporary of the apostle Paul) did not feel free to mine the Old Testament for prophecies that matched up with a virgin birth, other than what was already obvious. That there was a lack of straightforward correspondence between many of the details of Christ s birth and the Old Testament texts matched with them argues powerfully for the evangelists not having invented these data as pious legends or midrashic embellishments of their sources. (3) It is certainly possible that Luke took the time to interview Mary about what all happened during the time she was carrying Jesus. This is based on Luke 1:3 that says, Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.
2. Luke 1:3 is part of a preface (1:1-4) that closely resembles those of other relatively trustworthy historical works, but then there is an abrupt shift into a more Semitic Greek in the rest of chapters 1 & 2, suggesting the use of early Jewish sources.
3. People 2,000 years ago knew that a woman could not get pregnant on her own. Joseph, it seems, does not believe her at first because he was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, (and) he had in mind to divorce her quietly (Matthew 1:19). The implications were enormous. After being informed by the angel of God s plan, Mary had to have been thinking what people would say if she started to show. In a honor/shame society among the Jews of that time, it would mean public humiliation and possible stoning for adultery.
Joseph knew he didn t do anything because, while betrothed, he had not yet taken Mary home as his wife and therefore had not slept together. As well, there were no witnesses. Joseph was going to do the proper thing, until an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20). The virgin birth is highly unlikely to be an invention by the early Christians and it is also barely described. It lacks much of the flair and fantastic that accompanied other Greco-Roman myths. Little is made of the doctrine of the virgin birth aside from a reference by Paul (Galatians 4:4) and may be Mark 6:3. Speaking theologically again, Blomberg makes the point that the virginal conception,
Is a very fitting way to reinforce the Christian conviction that Jesus is both fully God (divine paternity) and fully man (human maternity). He is thus able to be both an adequate substitute and an adequate representative for us in his cross-work . In Luke, the emphasis is on Jesus as God s absolute gift, reminding us of salvation by grace. In Matthew, the emphasis is on Jesus as Immanuel, God in solidarity with us. (4)
We see this in Scripture:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.
And we see it in the hymns we sing:
Hark! The herald angels sing Charles Wesley, 1739.
Hark! The herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King:
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!
Joyful all ye nations rise, Join the triumph of the skies;
With the angelic host proclaim, Christ is born in Bethlehem!
Christ by highest heav n adored; Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of the Virgin s womb:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.
Hail the heav n born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings, Ris n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.
Noel, Noel -- Traditional English Carol
Then let us all with one accord
in praises to our heav nly Lord,
That hath made heav n and earth of naught,
And with His blood mankind hath bought.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel.
Joy to the world! -- Issac Watts, 1719
Joy to the world! The Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heav n and nature sing,
And heav n and nature sing,
And heav n, and heav n and nature sing.
(This song is actually about the second coming of Jesus Christ. Look at all the verses of the hymn in a hymnal.)
O Little Town of Bethlehem -- Phillip Brooks, 1868
O holy Child of Bethlehem! Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.
No greater gift could possibly have been conceived (literally) than that of the one and only Son of God who came to set man free from sin and death. The celebration of the birth came about as a protest to the worship of Sol Invictus ( the unconquerable sun ) on December 25 in the Western part of the Roman Empire.(5)
There should be more thinking in our hearts this Christmas on why we celebrate this important holiday and more meditating on the words that are contained in these hymns because they tell of an awesome story. A story almost too good to be true, and yet, it is.
© Copyright 2001 Kedric Webster
All Rights Reserved
(1) Phillip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995, p. 37.
(2) Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997, p 208.
(4) Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, p. 209.
(5) Blomberg, JATG, p. 188.