What Child Is This?
by Rick Shrader
Following this introduction, beginning on the second page, is a reprint of the December 1995 Aletheia article, “What Child Is This?” At this time of year we cannot emphasize enough the timeless truths of the Scripture. We do not limit our preaching of the birth of Christ and the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ to the holiday seasons. But these times do afford us space to speak as loudly and clearly as possible about these essential doctrines.
In 1992 I made my first trip to Russia with my father-in-law, Peter Slobodian, and my brother-in-law, Sam Slobodian. In those days, Russia was still like the old Soviet Union. Soldiers still guarded the streets, airports, and other important places but with little or no authority to do anything other than watch. The economy was in shambles and the stores were empty as people lined up to wait for food and other necessities. Prices for Westerners were great because the monetary system of the USSR was totally out of touch with the real world. Three of us rode on a train for twelve hours in a sleeper car for about a dollar and a half. We took pastors out to lunch (when there was any place open to eat) for almost pennies.
For seventy years the cold, atheistic system of Communism had gripped that large land (reaching across eleven time zones) and left it in ruins. We stayed with Christian families who had ministered underground for years and had suffered in many ways for their faith. Almost every husband or father had been in a prison at one time or another, usually for just passing out Christian literature or for participating in an unlawful assembly. The usual meal consisted of cheese and crackers and perhaps some salami and hot tea. One pastor kept live minnows in his bath tub (which he kindly removed before we took showers) because he always went fishing on Mondays for the only meat they would eat that week.
Most striking of all, however, was the change that was taking place over that land in the winter month of December. We left Chicago in mid-December amid legal battles over nativity scenes on public property, lawsuits over children mentioning God or Jesus in school Christmas assemblies, and general antipathy toward any mention of God or Christ in public advertising. Yet here we were in the former Soviet Union passing out tracts on the streets and preaching the gospel in the state school assemblies. There was little restriction at all for public assembly. You could not have enough literature for all the people who would flock around you on a street corner when they saw that you had Christian literature. Nor could you carry enough Bibles into the country to be given away. I heard a missionary just last month who said there is still more religious freedom in Russia and Ukraine today than in the United States of America.
There is no guarantee that our own country will continue its religious heritage. There is no divine promise that Christians will live in Christian nations or with freedom of expression in the age of grace. There is a guarantee, however, that the gospel of Christ will be met with opposition because it is truth and this world will always react against the light of the gospel that exposes its sin and calls it to conversion. God has no grandchildren. The faith of one generation does not automatically pass to the next. In a matter of years, the faith of a family or a community or a country may be totally gone. Culture can live on the spiritual capital of the last generation for a while but it will soon be gone. The truths of Christ must be preached and believed in each generation.
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 testimonies 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 earth’s air only cattle turned their headsin witness. The gospel account simply fits with the reality that we know of this world.
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.1
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 unbelief. “The incredulous are the most credulous. They believe in Vespasian’s miracles only to disbelieve in those of Moses.”2
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 microscope and the telescope. 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. The greatest revelation was when God also became a 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. But 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 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.’’3
And this brings us back to the Christmas story. It is the 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. But 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. But there was also enough mystery to hinder the unwilling and yet enough light to rid them of excuse. It was the perfect form for man to receive.
Notes: 1. John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Vol 1 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), 12. 2. Blaise Pascal, Pensees (London: Penguin Classics, 1966), 100. 3. Robert Wenz, Room For God? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 162. 4. James Russell Lowell’s Christmas Carol .
‘What means this glory round our feet,’
The Magi mused, ‘more bright than morn!’
And voices chanted clear and sweet,
‘Today the Prince of Peace is born.’4