What Child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping?
Why lies He in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear—for sinners here the silent Word is pleading.
So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh—come, rich and poor, to own Him;
The King of Kings salvation brings—let loving hearts enthrone Him.
English melody, fifteenth century
It has always been one of the striking testimonials of Christianity that Jesus Christ came quietly into this world and left the same way. Though he ascended to heaven while five hundred watched, when His mortal put back on immortality, He simply sat up inside a tomb, quietly put His clothes aside and walked out without audience. At His birth, although angels sang to shepherds on far away hills, when the Babe cried and first breathed terrestrial air, only cattle turned their heads in witness. The gospel account simply fits with the reality that we know of this world.
A human author, writing strictly on his own initiative, would characteristically tend to describe such a momentous and amazing event in an expansive, detailed, and elaborate manner. But not the apostle Matthew. He does relate additional circumstances surrounding the virgin birth, but the basic fact is stated in one simple sentence: “After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit.1
With the gospel writers, we are not to take the miraculous conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit in any other way but matter of fact. They don’t ask us to. We don’t have to give an explanation of the miracle, we only have to believe it or reject it. Is it any less reasonable than the alternatives we are offered?
For example, the Romans believed that Zeus impregnated Semele without contact and that she conceived Dionysus, lord of the earth. The Babylonians believed that Tammuz (see Ezek. 8:14) was conceived in the priestess Semiramis by a sunbeam. In an ancient Sumerian/Accadian story inscribed on a wall Tukulti II (890-884 B.C.) told how the gods created him in the womb of his mother. It was even claimed that the goddess of procreation superintended the conception of King Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.). At the conception of Buddha, his mother supposedly saw a great white elephant enter her belly. Hinduism has claimed that the divine Vishnu, after reincarnations as a fish, tortoise, boar, and lion, descended into the womb of Devaki and was born as her son Krishna. There is even a legend that Alexander the Great was virgin born by the power of Zeus through a snake that impregnated his mother, Olympias.2
The biblical account is above all such make-believe. Nothing about Christ’s incarnation violates what we know of this world. It only asks us to accept that the Creator of the world can enter and leave it when He wants and as calmly as He wants. It doesn’t insult us with tortoises or sunbeams in the womb. It is not God who is unreasonable in the Christmas story, it is man with his selfish nature and bent toward the fantastic. As Pascal wrote, “The incredulous are the most credulous. They believe in Vespasian’s miracles only to disbelieve in those of Moses.”3 Or, as Chesterton noted, “Take away the supernatural, and what remains is the unnatural.”4
We might say that God has asked us to accept a balance of reality in the world into which the incarnation fits perfectly well. God has placed us in a middle world between the telescope and the microscope. We can ascend into the starry heavens until we are overwhelmed by the size and awesomeness of space itself. Or we can descend into the microcosms of the cells and atoms only to find smaller worlds revolving in their own atmospheres. Man was placed between those two extremes at the center of God’s creative process so that we might be in a place to receive God’s revelation with a reasonable faith that fits with reality. William Lane Craig responded to a question concerning the impossibility of miracles by saying, “Only if you believe that God does not exist! Then I would agree—the miraculous would be absurd. But if there is a Creator who designed and brought the universe into being, who sustains its existence moment by moment, who is responsible for the very natural laws that govern the physical world, then certainly it’s rational to believe that the miraculous is possible.”5 The greatest revelation was when God became man, coming into the center of His creation, to reveal Who and What is the reason for our existence.
We learn in the Scriptures that God is both transcendent and immanent. God is transcendent in that He is totally separate, apart from and above His creation. Nicholas of Cusa said, “God is the greatest possible circle with the smallest possible curvature.”6 He is not as transcendent as the existentialist and agnostic would have us think. He is willing to reveal Himself and has done so in many ways, coming into the center of His world with voice, letter and in person. God is immanent in that He is close to and everywhere present in His creation. But He is not as immanent as the pantheists and new-age thinkers would have us believe. He does not consist of the material universe and cannot be found present in its parts. Rather, as before, He must come into the world in order for us to know Him. “God is a person and he made us as persons in his likeness. Because we are persons and he is a personal God, we have the capacity to worship him and to know him and to love him.”7
Though it is true that in our day we must try the miraculous spirits to see whether they are of God, in that day God had prepared the world for the greatest of miracles. Sir William Ramsay once wrote of the apostle Paul’s miraculous work:
That Paul believed himself to be the recipient of direct revelations from God, to be guided and controlled in his plans by direct interposition of the Holy Spirit, to be enabled by the Divine power to move the forces of nature in a way that ordinary men cannot, is involved in this narrative (Acts 14). You must make up your own minds to accept or to reject it; but you cannot cut out the marvelous from the rest, nor can you believe that either Paul or this writer was a mere victim of hallucinations. To the men of that age only what was guaranteed by marvelous accompaniments was true.8
We have spent much time today unmasking false miracles and deceptive claims to divine authority. The Christian spends too much of his time answering all the counterfeits while the counterfeits only have to answer Christianity. But we can never forget that the miracle of the incarnation, with all of its revealed facts, was miraculous! The transcendent God became immanent within our world!
And this brings us back to the Christmas story. It is that wonderful record of a mighty God overshadowing a virgin Mary, sending angels to sing in concert to shepherds and throwing a star in the sky for wise men to see. That same God came quietly into our world among the mud of a stable floor and the smells and sounds of common herds. He came as an infant who needed to be nursed and protected from his enemies. He was the perfect revelation of a transcendent, immanent God. There was enough light to lighten the willing and enough mystery to keep them in awe. Yet there was enough mystery to hinder the unwilling and enough light to show them God’s law. It was the perfect form for man to receive.
There’s a song in the air! There’s a star in the sky!
There’s a mother’s deep prayer and a baby’s low cry!
And the star rains its fire while the beautiful sing,
For the manger of Bethlehem cradles a King!
There’s a tumult of joy O’er the wonderful birth,
For the Virgin’s sweet Boy is the Lord of the earth.
Ay! The star rains its fire while the beautiful sing,
For the manger of Bethlehem cradles a King!
In the light of that star lie the ages impearled,
And that song from afar has swept over the world.
Every hearth is aflame and the beautiful sing,
In the homes of the nations that Jesus is King!
We rejoice in the light, and we echo the song
That comes down thru the night from the heavenly throng.
Ay! We shout to the lovely evangel they bring,
And we greet in His cradle our Savior and King!9Notes: 1. John MacArthur, God in the Manger (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2001) 4-5. 2. John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Vol I (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985) 12. 3. Blaise Pascal, Pensees (London: Penguin Classics, 1966) 100. 4. G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000) 49. 5. Interview with Lee Stroble, The Case For Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) 61. 6. Quoted by Norman Geisler, Philosophy of Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974) 48. 7. Robert Wenz, Room For God? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994) 162. 8. William Ramsay, St. Paul: The Traveller and the Roman Citizen (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1962) 87. 9. Josiah G. Holland, There’s A Song In The Air!