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On the Road with Jesus
Birth and Ministry
By Ben Witherington III
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
UNTO US A SON IS GIVEN
All the Gospels present Jesus on a continual road trip— God in motion, urgently making a way to us in defeat of the desert in which we wander. —William H. Willimon
It is possible to begin the story of Jesus from before time and space, to begin it like a Star Wars introduction with "the story thus far" scrolling through the galaxy, bringing us up-to-date. In fact, this is where John 1 begins the story. You can almost hear James Earl Jones in his deep baritone saying not "long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away" but even more impressively, echoing Genesis 1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God." Scholars call this the preexistence language applied to God the Son, speaking about where he was and who he was and what he was doing before there ever was a material universe, before there was ever the proclamation "Let there be light."
This way of starting the story is breathtaking and challenging. This is the language of "Incarnation," of how the preexistent, divine Son of God took on flesh and dwelt among us. Indeed, the very term Incarnation implies that the person in question existed before he became a human being. The poet John Donne, reflecting on this very matter, wrote in his holy sonnet, which begins with the words "Wilt thou love God, as he thee? Then digest": "'Twas much that man was made like God before, / But, that God should be made like man, much more." Indeed. It's one thing to talk about human creatures being created in the image of God and something different altogether to talk about God taking on the image of human beings. And one has to be exceedingly careful about how one talks about this matter.
For example, I like to ask my New Testament students, "Did Jesus always exist?" Some of them, without hesitation, will say, "Of course, John 1 and Philippians 2:5-11 make this clear." Then I will reply, "I did not ask, did the divine Son of God always exist? I asked, did Jesus, the human being, always exist?" Some of the brighter sparks in the class then get the point. Jesus is the name of a human being. If the Incarnation is real, if the Word really did, at some particular point in time, take on flesh, then the story of Jesus has a temporal beginning. There is a point in time when this person is given a human name because he has a temporal human beginning. Strictly speaking, before the Incarnation, before the virginal conception, there was no Jesus the human being. There was only the divine Son of God who "became" Jesus when he took "on flesh." And here is the great mystery—he did this without leaving behind his divine nature. The Word took on flesh in an additive process. The Word did not cease to be the divine Son of God when he did so. But the story of Jesus, properly speaking, begins with the story of Mary. It begins with an announcement and a human response by Mary that has momentous, indeed everlasting, consequences. As it turns out, from the outset, mere mortals become part of the story, part of the plan of God to save our world.
We owe the story of the Annunciation to Luke. We have heard it so many times that we are probably inoculated against really hearing it. It is a story about the unexpected, the dangerous, the improbable, the surprising. Let us hear the tale again and try to listen with new ears and an open mind.
When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David's house. The virgin's name was Mary. When the angel came to her, he said, "Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!" She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. The angel said, "Don't be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will reign over Jacob's house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom."
Then Mary said to the angel, "How will this happen since I haven't had sexual relations with a man?"
The angel replied, "The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God's Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled 'unable to conceive' is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God."
Then Mary said, "I am the Lord's servant. Let it be with me just as you have said." Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38 CEB)
Mary is a small-town girl, a mere teenager, probably a young teenager, engaged to be married and minding her own business when she receives a visit from one of God's FedEx boys, God's special messengers. And it's not just any angel sent to deliver the news, but Gabriel, one of the two great angels, who, along with Michael, was involved with and watched over God's people, Israel. Mary, whose name is in fact Miryam, named after the sister of Moses, the famous Old Testament prophetess, is of course dumbfounded by what the angel says. But why? Hadn't she read Isaiah or at least heard from the scroll of Isaiah taught in the Nazareth synagogue?
The answer to this question may surprise you. Isaiah 7:14 reads in the Hebrew: "And a young nubile woman of marriageable age will conceive and give birth to a child." Yes, this verse implies that the woman would be a virgin. This text was written in an honor-and-shame culture where the virginity of the bride was of paramount importance and taken for granted. However, this text does not focus specifically on the virginity of the woman, though the later Greek (LXX) translation of this verse does more narrowly stress the virginity of the woman in question. That LXX text is what Matthew quotes in his treatment of the story. But even if the Hebrew text was taken to read, "And a virgin will conceive and give birth to a child," the normal and natural assumption would be that she would conceive by normal means, which is to say, with benefit of a husband. The text does not explain how the woman would come to be pregnant. Thus it was that the notion of a virginal conception would come as more than a little surprising to a young Jewish girl like Mary. No one in her context was likely thinking that the Jewish Messiah would come into this world through miraculous means. After all, King David and King Solomon had come into this world like everyone else—through the efforts of their parents. They did not come into this world trailing clouds of glory.
Let me be clear that Isaiah 7:14 can be interpreted to refer to a virginal conception. It's just not so specific that it rules out other ways of reading this piece of prophetic poetry. And clearly, Jews of Mary's time did read it differently. What prompted the followers of Jesus to read this story in a very specific way was the event that happened in the life of Mary—an unexpected, unlooked-for event—a virginal conception. The event caused the rereading of Scripture in a fresh way. You will notice that I did not call this miracle "the virgin birth." The miracle in this case transpires at the point of conception, not at the point of the birth of Jesus, which from all we can tell took place in a normal manner. And we might well ask: why the need for a virginal conception? After all, Joseph was a good, God-fearing man; there is nothing unclean or unholy about human sexual intercourse between a husband and wife in and of itself.
The answer to this question has to do with the darkness into which the light of the world came. Remember what John 1:5 says: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." Jesus was born into a dark, dangerous, sinful world. He was born into a world where people loved darkness more than light. In short, he was born into a fallen world, a world that C. S. Lewis once aptly characterized as a place where it was "always winter and never Christmas." The world was in a sorry state; it was lost. And more to the point, human beings had fallen into sin and degradation and could not get up on the basis of their own efforts or understanding or willpower. Salvation would have to come in the form of a radical rescue effort, not a human self-help program. It would come to do its work "as far as the curse is found." The virginal conception tells us that the savior would have to come into the world and be truly human without being a sinner, without having a fallen human nature. Only so could the Messiah be the literal Holy One of God; only so could he be the unblemished Lamb of God who takes away, rather than adds to, the sins of the world. As the author of the book of Hebrews was later to say, Jesus was tempted like us in every respect, save without sin. The virginal conception reminds us it would take a miracle to sort out the human dilemma and save humanity from itself.
What does it mean for Jesus to be truly human? Though some people through the ages have equated being human with being a sinner, the writers of the New Testament are not among them. To be truly human means to live in human form and live with the normal limitations humans have—limitations of time and space and knowledge and power. It means to live with the limitation of mortality. God, however, never intended for sin to be an inherent or built-in component of what it means to be human. As Alexander Pope once said, "To err is human"; but the reverse of that is not true—one must err, one must sin, to be truly human. Jesus was truly human and yet not a sinner. He was Adam gone right, or, as Paul was later to call him, the last Adam, the last and true founder of the human race. I suspect that some of these ideas help explain why Jesus chose to call himself the "Son of Man." We will say more about these things when we discuss Jesus' temptations in the wilderness, but we must return to the Annunciation, the announcement to Mary.
Let's talk for a moment about where this announcement took place. It took place in a little backwater town, a little one stop light town on no major road, called Nazareth. There are no prophecies in the Old Testament alerting the hearer to watch out for the first announcement of the coming of the Messiah in such a locale. But the name of the town is something of a clue. Literally it is "Netzer-it," meaning Branch Town, which is an allusion to the fact that a shoot or branch will come forth from Jesse and will be the final and greatest descendant of the line of David—the final, true Son of David, who will save his people. It appears that the town of Nazareth was a place to which descendants of David moved. This helps explain why it is that when the census rolls around (see Luke 2:1-3), Mary and Joseph have to go back to the ancestral town to register. Some of those families who had come from Bethlehem had ended up in Nazareth and now had to go back to the old home place for the registration. This is a tale of two cities, but quite unlike Charles Dickens's tale of London and Paris. Instead, this is a tale of two small Jewish villages where the history of the world was to be irrevocably altered.
The second thing to notice about this story is that Mary is betrothed. When we think of betrothal, we may not think of a formal and binding contract, but in the world of Mary, betrothal is a formal and legal commitment, and the only way to get out of it is to break the contract, indeed to divorce the person. This is why Matthew's account of this story at one point says that when Joseph found out his wife was pregnant, knowing he was not the father, he resolved to divorce her quietly; though, honestly, how it could be kept quiet in a tiny village like Nazareth is a good question. The situation of Mary would be perilous if she was found to be pregnant out of wedlock and yet was betrothed. Indeed, the possible penalty for such a state was stoning. The story of the virginal conception is a dangerous story, dangerous to its principal character—Mary. Mary would be taking an enormous risk not merely of being rejected by Joseph, but also of being condemned and stoned, or at least cast out of her village once the story got out about her pregnancy.
Can you imagine the conversation that must have transpired between Mary and her parents after the angelic visitation? "Guess what, Mom and Dad?" says Mary, "I'm going to be the mother of the Messiah." "There, there, dear," says Mary's mother, "every Jewish girl dreams of being the mother of the Messiah." "No, seriously," says Mary, "I am going to be the mother of the Messiah." "And how do you know this?" asks Mary's father. Mary replies, "An angel named Gabriel came and told me, and in fact I am already pregnant with the Messiah; but not to worry, this was a miracle performed by the Holy Spirit. No man has touched me yet." What would you say in these circumstances if your thirteen or fourteen-year-old daughter told you a story like this? Would you not think that this might be a cover-up for premarital sex with someone? And indeed, we know that later non-Christian Jewish traditions critical of this very story suggested that Jesus was illegitimate. In fact one version told by Celsus, the Jewish dialogue partner of Origen, was that a Roman soldier named Pantera had impregnated Mary.
You can see immediately how the skeptical would jump to such a conclusion. And this is precisely why it is unlikely that this story in Luke 2 is a mere fable. The earliest Christians, including Luke himself, were attempting to put their best foot forward in regard to the story of Jesus, doing apologetics and evangelizing one and all, and they intended to make clear that Jesus' story was good (and godly) news, not news only fit for soap operas. My point is simple: they would not make up a story about a virginal conception. Furthermore, this story has no precedent. Not even the emperors, who in this era were sometimes called divine or the son of some deity, were thought to have come into the world by means of a virginal conception. This story is without parallel, and its potential to be seen as scandalous by Jews and Gentiles alike, makes it unlikely to have been invented by the Evangelists. Furthermore, Matthew and Luke, in two otherwise very different accounts, are in agreement, probably independently of each other, that the virginal conception definitely happened.
In 1978, when my wife and I were living in England, I had the task of teaching a children's Sunday school class at our local Methodist church in Durham. It was the Christmas season and I had been telling the children the story of the Annunciation and the virginal conception. One young lady named Rachel, who was very bright and about seven or eight, came up to me after class and asked the following excellent question, "Now, let me see if I have got this right. If God is Jesus' father, and Mary is Jesus' mother, are God and Mary married?" This was followed by a dramatic pause, and then in a softer voice, "And if not, is Jesus illegitimate?" Out of the mouths of babes. Rachel had rightly sensed the potentially scandalous nature of this story if Mary's pregnancy was not miraculous, as the story claims. I explained to Rachel that God and Mary were not married—indeed she would go on to marry Joseph and have more children, the brothers and sisters of Jesus—but that God through the Holy Spirit had given Mary the gift of a child: "Unto us a son is given."
Next, let's look at the reassurance the angel gave Mary. He told her not to worry, for the Lord was with her, by which I assume he meant that God was looking after her and that she had the singular honor of being chosen by God, of being highly favored by God, to bear the Messiah, who, as Luke says, would be the savior of the world. Notice as well that neither Mary nor Joseph get to choose the name of this child. The angel says that he shall be called Jesus, which is to say Yeshua, much the same as the name Joshua, which means "Yahweh saves." What an appropriate name for the Messiah. The promise says that this child will be called Son of the Most High God, will be given a throne, and will rule over Israel forever.
Now, if you are reading this story in its appropriate context, namely in light of Luke 1, you will notice there is a contrast between this story and the story of what happened to Zechariah when he received his visitation. Mary's response to the angel is simply, "How will this happen since I haven't had sexual relations with a man?" (v. 34 CEB). This is unlike Zechariah's query, "How will I know that this is so?" (v. 18). Mary is simply asking the means by which this is to happen. Zechariah appears to be asking a doubting question, asking for proof, as it were, that what the angel says is true. The former question comes from a posture of faith seeking understanding; the latter from a posture of doubt seeking proof. This is why Zechariah is struck dumb whereas Mary is enabled to praise God and offer us one of the truest and most noble and self-sacrificial statements ever made by a person of faith.
Excerpted from On the Road with Jesus by Ben Witherington III. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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