Are You Listening? Do You Hear What I Hear?

Have you ever missed a great opportunity because you weren’t listening carefully? Twenty centuries ago some clues to impending good news of monumental import eluded most folks. Fascinating prophecies of Jesus’ birth and life bring revealing insights into your own life today.

Have you ever missed a great opportunity because you weren’t listening carefully?

If Mark{1} hadn’t been willing to listen, he might have missed some great news. He enjoyed an adequate income, fulfilling work, a comfortable home, and many close friends. Then his employer offered a promotion requiring a move to another state. At first resistant, he eventually decided to listen to the offer and make the move.

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Mark’s job responsibilities expanded, his growing reputation opened doors for wider influence, and he met and married Gail. Reflecting twenty-five years later, he was glad he had carefully listened to news of the offer.

At a business convention Joan heard a brief announcement of an advanced degree program. Distracted by current concerns, she dismissed it. When the announcement was repeated the next day, Joan caught something she had missed. The degree would be from one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Her company was encouraging managers to participate, promising them time to study, and offering to help pay for it. Joan investigated, enrolled, and her career was greatly enhanced. “To think that I almost missed the good news about this program because I was distracted,” Joan reflected. “What a tragedy that would have been.”

Perhaps you, too, have encountered news that first seemed insignificant but later became momentous. Great news isn’t always trumpeted by headlines or television broadcasts. Sometimes the best news could slip right by if you’re not attuned to its importance.

Twenty centuries ago some clues to impending good news of monumental import eluded most folks. A baby born in relative obscurity in the Middle East was hailed by a few as a future king who would rescue people from their troubles. “Good news of great joy for everyone!” said one announcement of Jesus’ birth.{2}

Relatively few contemporaries acknowledged His importance. His followers later showed numerous clues to His identity, prophecies written many years before His birth. You may not share the faith of those early believers, but perhaps you’ll find it interesting to eavesdrop on some of the clues, the prophecies. Consider just a few.{3}

Prophecies Fulfilled in Jesus’ Birth

The Hebrew writer Micah told around 700 B.C. of deliverance through a coming Messiah or “Anointed One.” He indicated this deliverer would be from Bethlehem. He wrote, “But you . . . Bethlehem . . . are only a small village in Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past.” {4}

Matthew, a first-century biographer, noted that “. . . Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. . . .”{5}

Isaiah, writing around 700 B.C., foretold an unusual aspect of the Messiah’s birth, that He would be born of a virgin. He wrote, “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”{6}

The name “Immanuel” means “God is with us.” The indication—to all who were listening—was that God Himself would be physically present with humans through this child. What a promise! What good news to people who often felt abandoned by God.

Matthew recorded this about Jesus’ birth:

Now this is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. . . . Joseph . . . brought Mary home to be his wife, but she remained a virgin until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus.{7}

Jewish prophets mentioned several clues about the Messiah’s lineage. He was to be a descendant of Abraham. Moses, a famous Jewish leader writing fourteen hundred years before Jesus’ birth, recorded a prophecy about the Jewish patriarch Abraham. He wrote, “Through your [Abraham’s] descendants, all the nations of the earth will be blessed.”{8}

The Messiah was also to be a descendant of Isaac. Moses recorded another promise. He said, “God told Abraham, ‘ . . . Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted’.”{9} In other words, something important was going to come through the descendants of Abraham and specifically through the line of Isaac, one of Abraham’s two sons.

The Messiah was also to be a descendant of Jacob. Abraham’s son Isaac himself had two sons, Jacob and Esau. Some ancient Jewish scholars{10} believed that another prophecy that Moses recorded prefigured the Messiah. Moses wrote, “A star will rise from Jacob; a scepter will emerge from Israel.”{11}

Luke, a first-century physician, traced Jesus’ lineage through these three Jewish leaders. He wrote of “Jesus . . . the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. . . .”{12}

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, of a virgin, and from the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The pieces of the prophetic puzzle were starting to become clearer. The details of His life would fulfill the prophecies further.

Prophecies Fulfilled in Jesus’ Life and Death

Though Jesus was born in humble circumstances, learned leaders traveled great distances to hail the child as a king. In His youth, scholars marveled at His wisdom. In His thirties He began to publicly offer peace, freedom, purpose and hope to the masses. His message caught on.

His enemies plotted His demise and paid one of his followers to betray Him. His closest friends deserted Him. He was tried, convicted, sentenced and executed. In agony during His execution He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”{13}

Many hurting people feel forsaken by God. But Jesus’ cry of desperation carried added significance because of its historical allusion. The words had appeared about a thousand years earlier in a song written by Israel’s King David.{14} It said, “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.”{15} “They have pierced my hands and my feet.”{16} “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.”{17} Historians record precisely this behavior during Jesus’ execution.{18} It was as if a divine drama were unfolding as Jesus slipped into death.

Researchers have uncovered more than 300 prophecies that were literally fulfilled in Jesus’ life and death. He would be preceded by a messenger who would prepare the way for His work.{19} He would enter the capital city as a king, but riding on a donkey’s back.{20} He would be betrayed for thirty pieces of silver,{21} pierced,{22} executed with thieves{23} and yet, though wounded,{24} would suffer no broken bones.{25}

In His dying cry from the cross, He reminded His hearers that His life and death were in precise fulfillment of a previously stated plan. According to a biblical perspective, at the moment of death He experienced the equivalent of eternal separation from God in our place. He suffered the divine penalty due all the shortcomings, injustice, evil, and sin of the world, including yours and mine. Then—again in fulfillment of prophecy{26} and contrary to natural law—He returned to life. As somewhat of a skeptic I investigated the evidence for Christ’s resurrection and found it to be one of the best-attested facts in history.{27} To the seeker He offers true inner peace,{28} forgiveness,{29} purpose,{30} and strength for fulfilling living.{31}

Jesus’ birth, life, and death fulfilled many prophecies. Many of these fulfillments involved details that were beyond His human control. But could this be coincidence? Could the prophecies have been fulfilled by chance?

Prophecies Fulfilled by Chance?

My good friend and mentor, Bob Prall, likes to make a distinction between prediction and prophecy{32} and uses a sports analogy to illustrate that distinction. I got to know Bob when I was a student at Duke University and he was the Campus Crusade for Christ director. Now, sports fans will know that Duke’s men’s basketball team often has contended for the national title. Alas, the Duke football team has suffered many losing seasons.

Bob notes that prediction can involve careful analysis of current events to make an educated guess about the future. Stock market analysts, political pollsters, social scientists, and CBS Survivor fans all seek to predict outcomes. But prophecy often involves events and situations hundreds of years apart or without apparent human connection. Bob explains that if someone were to study the Duke men’s basketball team and announce they would win the national championship, and then it happened, that would be successful prediction. But if someone evaluated the Duke football team and announced they would win the national championship, that would be prophecy!

Could the 300 prophecies Jesus fulfilled have been fulfilled merely by chance? Peter Stoner, a California mathematician, once calculated the probability of just eight of these 300 prophecies coming true in one person due to chance alone. Using estimates that both he and classes of college students considered reasonable and conservative, Stoner concluded there was one chance in 1017 that those eight were fulfilled by fluke.

He says 1017 silver dollars would cover the state of Texas two feet deep. Mark one coin with red fingernail polish. Stir the whole batch thoroughly. What chance would a blindfolded person have of picking the marked coin on the first try? One in 1017, the same chance that just eight of the 300 prophecies “just happened” to come true in this man, Jesus.{33}

With all these signs, why wasn’t more attention paid to Jesus’ birth? No reporters with microphones and cameras waited outside the stable to interview the new mom. (Maybe if she’d had quints?)

Some back then were looking for a conquering king promised by Hebrew prophets and did not anticipate a lowly birth. Others were perhaps too entangled in their own self-importance or preoccupied with the details of life: working, families, relationships, emotions. Maybe they were a bit like us.

What does all this mean for us this Christmas?

Today’s Good News

Jesus’ “good news” offers a chance to hook into God’s unchanging love, to be forgiven of all wrong and to live forever with Him. He can help you accept yourself, replace anxiety with peace and provide the best friends you’ve ever had.

If His news is so good, why do people still miss it today? Some are enmeshed in careers or relationships that offer little time for reflection. Chasing dollars blinds some. Family strife can make life a blur: teens experimenting with sex or drugs, a spouse wanting out. Western life itself can be exhausting: media overload, the rush to taxi kids or complete shopping, cellphones, beepers, PTA, soccer practice, e-mail, laundry, Web surfing . . . Help! Maybe you could use some time to reflect.

I suspect you’ve had hints of God’s good news. Maybe you’ve admired the majesty of the universe and wondered Who was behind it. Perhaps a friend told you their story of faith. Maybe a magazine article got you thinking.

For eighteen years I heard the story of Jesus but did not understand it. The summer before entering university, I wrestled with concern over my own afterlife but gave up because it seemed too complicated. That fall I met some vibrant Christians whose love, joy, and enthusiasm attracted me.

They told me I could not earn eternal life. Rather I needed to receive Christ’s free gift of forgiveness accomplished by His death for my sins and His resurrection. They told me all this would be a “gift of God; not . . . a result of works, so that no one . . . [could] boast” about it.{34} That was good news to me. I accepted His gift of forgiveness and have found Him to be a wonderful friend.

Life hasn’t been perfect. I’ve had my share of domestic strife, job conflicts, and minor health struggles. God never promised perfection, painlessness, or complete prosperity in this life. But He does offer unusual peace, pardon from guilt, ultimate purpose, and the inner power to cope with any struggle. He promises to cause “all things to work together for good” to those who love Him.{35} He is a friend who will never leave.{36}

Might this Christmas season be a good time for you to ask God to forgive you and become your friend? It’s a decision that only you can make for yourself. You can simply talk to Him right now, ask Him to forgive you and become your friend forever. Then contact this station or visit the Web site Probe.org to learn more about a relationship with God.

Maybe there’s some good news for you in the story of Jesus. Do you hear what I hear? Are you listening?

*This article is adapted from Rusty Wright, “Are You Listening? Do You Hear What I Hear?” Pursuit VII: 3, 1998, pp.12-15. Copyright © 1998 Rusty Wright. Used By Permission.

Notes

1. Names and some details in certain stories in this article have been altered for privacy while preserving the points of the stories. Details of stories that name me personally have not been changed.

2. Luke 2:10 NLT.

3. Adapted from Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino, Calif: Campus Crusade for Christ, 1972) 147-157 ff.

4. Micah 5:2 NLT.

5. Matthew 2:1 NASB.

6. Isaiah 7:14 NIV.

7. Matthew 1:18, 24, 25 NLT.

8. Genesis 22:18 NLT.

9. Genesis 21:12 NLT.

10. McDowell, op. cit., 154.

11. Numbers 24:17 NLT.

12. Luke 3:23, 34 NASB.

13. Matthew 27:46 NIV.

14. Psalm 22.

15. Psalm 22:7 NIV.

16. Psalm 22:16 NIV.

17. Psalm 22:18 NIV.

18. Matthew 27:39-44, 35; John 20:25.

19. Malachi 3:1; Isaiah 40:3; Matthew 3:1,2.

20. Zechariah 9:9; John 12:15; Matthew 21:1-9.

21. Zechariah 11:12; Matthew 26:15, 27:3.

22. Zechariah 12:10; John 19:34, 37.

23. Isaiah 53:12; Matthew 27:38.

24. Isaiah 53:5; Zechariah 13:6; Matthew 27:26.

25. Psalm 34:20; John 19:33, 36.

26. Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:31-32.

27. See McDowell, op. cit., 185-273.

28. John 14:27.

29. Colossians 1:14.

30. Matthew 28: 18-20.

31. Galatians 5:22-23.

32. Bob Prall, The Master Plot of the Bible (Houston: Emmaus Books Trust, 1997) 56; Bob Prall, As You Are Going… Make Disciples (Houston: Emmaus Books Trust, 2001) 108-109.

33. Peter W. Stoner, Science Speaks (Chicago: Moody Press, 1969) 99-112.

34. Ephesians 2:8-9 NASB.

35. Romans 8:28 NASB.

36. Hebrews 13:5.

© 2004 Probe Ministries




The Christmas Story: Does It Still Matter?

What does Christmas mean to you? Times with family and friends? Perhaps carols, cards, television specials. Maybe hectic shopping, parties, and eating too much.

All these and more are part of North American Christmas. But what about the first Christmas? Why is the original story—the baby in a manger, shepherds, wise men, angels—important, if at all?

May I invite you to consider eight reasons why the original Christmas story matters, even to you? You may not agree with all of them, but perhaps they will stimulate your thinking and maybe even kindle some feelings that resonate with that famous story.

First, the Christmas story is important because it is. . .

A Story that Has Endured

For two millennia, people have told of the child in a Bethlehem manger; of angels who announced his birth to shepherds; of learned men who traveled a great distance to view him.{1}

That a story persists for many years does not prove its truthfulness. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy survive in the popular imagination. But a twenty-century tenure at least merits our consideration. What deep human longings does the Christmas story portray? Why has it connected so profoundly with millions of people? Is the story factual? Curiosity prompts further investigation.

Second, the Christmas story is also . . .

A Story of Hope and Survival

Jesus’ society knew great pain and oppression. Rome ruled. Corrupt tax collectors burdened the people. Some religious leaders even sanctioned physical beating of Jewish citizens participating in compulsory religious duties.{2}

Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary traveled a long distance to Bethlehem to register for a census but could not obtain proper lodging. Mary bore her baby and laid him in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. Eventually, King Herod sought to kill the baby. Warned of impending risk, Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt, then returned home after Herod’s death.

Imagine how Mary felt. Traveling while pregnant would be challenging. Fleeing to another nation lest some king slay your son would not be pleasant. Yet she, Joseph, and Jesus survived the ordeal.

In the midst of social and cultural challenges, the Christmas story offers hope and encouragement toward survival, hope of new life linked to something—someone—greater than oneself. One of Jesus’ followers said Jesus’ “name . . . [would] be the hope of all the world.”{3}

So, the Christmas story is important because it has endured and because it speaks of hope and survival.

Reason number three: the Christmas story is . . .

A Story of Peace and Goodwill

Christmas carolers sing of “peace on earth.” Greeting cards extol peace, families desire it, and the news reminds us of its fleeting nature.

I encountered ten-year-old Matt from Nebraska in a southern California restaurant men’s room one afternoon. Alone and forlorn looking, he stood outside the lone stall.

“Could I ask a favor?” inquired the sandy haired youth. “The door to this stall has no lock. Would you watch and be sure that no one comes in on me?” “Sure,” I replied, happy to guard his privacy. Matt noted, “In a lot of nice restaurants the stall doors don’t have locks.” “I know,” I agreed. “You’d think they would.”

After a pause, his high-pitched voice said, “You know what I wish? I wish there could be peace in all the earth and no more arguments or fighting so no one would have to die except by heart attacks.” “That would be great,” I agreed. “How do you think that could happen?” Matt didn’t know.

“It seems that the Prince of Peace could help,” I suggested. “Do you know who that is?” He didn’t. “Well, at Christmas, we talk a lot about Jesus as the Prince of Peace,” I explained.

“Oh, I see,” conceded Matt. “I don’t know about those things because I don’t go to church. Do you know what it’s like to be the only boy in your town who doesn’t go to church? I do.”

“Well, I’m a church member,” I replied, “but really the most important thing is knowing Jesus Christ as your personal friend. When I was eighteen, some friends explained to me that He died and rose again for me and that I could begin a relationship with Him. It made a big difference and gave me a real peace inside. He can also bring peace between people.”

By now, Matt was out washing his hands as his father stuck his head in the door to hurry him along. I gave him a small booklet that explained more. “Thanks,” smiled Matt as he walked out to join his family for lunch.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman in his bestselling book Emotional Intelligence tells of boarding a New York City bus to find a driver whose friendly greeting and positive disposition spread contagious warmth among the initially cold and indifferent passengers. Goleman envisioned a “virus of good feeling” spreading through the city from this “urban peacemaker” whose good will had softened hearts.{4}

The Christmas angel announced to some shepherds, “‘Don’t be afraid! . . . I bring you good news of great joy for everyone! The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born tonight in Bethlehem, the city of David!”{5} A crowd of angels then appeared praising God and proclaiming peace among people of good will.{6}

The Christmas story brings a message of peace that can soothe anxious hearts and calm interpersonal strife.

Reason number four: the Christmas story is . . .

A Story of Family

Christmas is a time for family gatherings. This interaction can bring great joy or great stress. Estrangement or ill will from past conflicts can explode.

Joseph and Mary had their share of family challenges. Consider their circumstances. The historical accounts indicate that Joseph’s fiancée became pregnant though she was a virgin. Mary believed an angel told her she was pregnant by God. Now, how would you feel if your fiancé/fiancée exhibited apparent evidence of sexual activity with someone else during your engagement? Suppose your intended said that God had sanctioned the whole thing. Would your trust and self-esteem take a nosedive? Would you cancel the wedding?

Joseph, described as “a just man, decided to break the engagement quietly, so as not to disgrace . . . [Mary] publicly.”{7} But an angel appeared to him in a dream, explaining that the child was conceived in her by God, and told him to “name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”{8} Joseph followed instructions and cared for his family. His continuing commitment to Mary and Jesus played a significant part in the boy’s birth and early childhood. With God’s help, the family overcame major obstacles. And so can your family.

Fifth, the story is Christmas is also . . .

A story of Humility

When kings, presidents, and other rulers appear in public, great pomp often ensues. From a biblical perspective, God came first not as a ruling king but as a servant, a baby born in humble circumstances. His becoming human helps humans identify with Him.

Imagine that you and your child are walking in a field and encounter an ant pile with hundreds of ants scurrying about. In the distance, you see a construction bulldozer approaching. Suppose your child asks how to warn the ants of impending danger. You discuss various possibilities: shouting, holding up signs, etc. But the best solution would be if somehow your child could become an ant and warn them personally. Some ants might not believe the danger. But some might believe and take steps to ensure their safety.

Paul, an early follower of Jesus, wrote of the humility Jesus displayed by becoming human:

Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form. And in human form he obediently humbled himself even further by dying a criminal’s death on a cross. Because of this, God raised him up to the heights of heaven.{9}

The Christmas story speaks of family and humility. But is it true?{10}

Reason number six why the Christmas story matters: it is . . .

A Story that Was Foretold

Jesus’ followers noted numerous clues to his identity, prophecies written many years before His birth.{11}

The Hebrew writer Micah told around 700 BC of deliverance through a coming Messiah or “Anointed One” from Bethlehem.{12} We know that “. . . Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. . . .”{13}

Isaiah, writing around 700 BC, foretold that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. He wrote, “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”{14} The name “Immanuel” means “God is with us.” Biblical accounts claim Jesus’ mother was a virgin when she bore Him.{15}

Additional prophecies concern the Messiah’s lineage, betrayal, suffering, execution, and resurrection. Peter Stoner, a California mathematician, once calculated the probability of just eight of the 300 prophecies Jesus fulfilled coming true in one person due to chance alone. Using estimates that both he and classes of college students considered reasonable and conservative, Stoner concluded there was one chance in 1017 that those eight were fulfilled by fluke.

He says 1017 silver dollars would cover the state of Texas two feet deep. Mark one coin with red fingernail polish. Stir the whole batch thoroughly. What chance would a blindfolded person have of picking the marked coin on the first try? One in 1017, the same chance that just eight of the 300 prophecies “just happened” to come true in this man, Jesus.{16}

In a similar vein, consider reason number seven why the original Christmas story matters. It is . . .

A Story that Has Substantial Support

Can we trust the biblical accounts of the Christmas story? Three important points:

Eyewitness Testimony. The Gospels—presentations of Jesus’ life—claim to be, or bear evidence of containing, eyewitness accounts. In a courtroom, eyewitness testimony is among the most reliable evidence.

Early Date. Dr. William F. Albright, one of the world’s leading archaeologists, dated every book of the New Testament (NT) before about AD 80.{17} There is no known record of NT factual authenticity ever being successfully challenged by a contemporary.

Manuscript Evidence. Over 24,000 early manuscript copies of portions of the NT exist today. Concerning manuscript attestation, Sir Frederic Kenyon, director and principle librarian of the British Museum, concluded, “Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”{18}

The Christmas story is notable for its enduring messages of hope, peace, goodwill, family and humility. It was foretold by prophets and has substantial manuscript support. But there is another reason for considering the story of Jesus’ birth, perhaps the most important.

Reason number eight: the Christmas story is . . .

A Story of Love

Jesus’ followers taught that His conception and birth were part of a divine plan to bring us genuine peace, inner freedom, and self-respect. They believed the biblical God wants us to enjoy friendship with Him, and meaning and purpose. Alas, our own self-centeredness separates us from Him. Left to our own, we would spend both time and eternity in this spiritually unplugged state.

Jesus came to help plug us into God. Mary’s baby was born to die, paying the penalty for our self-centeredness, which the biblical documents call “sin.” If I had a traffic fine I could not pay, you could offer to pay it for me. When the adult Jesus died on the cross, He carried the penalty due all our sins then rose from the dead to give new life.

Jesus explained, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”{19} God can become your friend if you believe in Him, that is, if you trust Him to forgive you. He will never let you down.

Perhaps you are becoming aware of the importance of the Christmas story in your own life. Might you like to receive Jesus’ free gift of forgiveness and place your faith in Him? You can celebrate this Christmas knowing that you are a member of His family. Perhaps you’d like to talk to Him right now. You might want to tell Him something like this:

Jesus Christ, thanks for loving me, for dying for my sins and rising again. Please apply your death as the means of my forgiveness. I accept your pardon. Come and live in me and help me to become your close friend.

If you made that decision to place your trust in Jesus, He has entered your life, forgiven you and given you eternal life. I encourage you to tell another of His followers about your decision and ask them to help you grow in faith. Call this radio station or visit the Web site probe.org to learn more. Read the Bible to discover more about God. Begin with the Gospel of John, the fourth book in the New Testament, which is one of the easier ones to understand. Tell God what is on your heart, and tell others about the discovery you’ve made so they can know Him too.

Christmas is meant to celebrate peace and joy. Amidst the busyness of shopping, parties, presents, and fun, remember that the Prince of Peace came to spread peace and joy to all who believe in Him.

Notes

1. Details of the Christmas story are in Luke 1-2 and Matthew 1:18-2:23.
2. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973 printing of the 1883 original), i:372.
3. Matthew 12:21 NLT.
4. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), ix-x.
5. Luke 2:10-11 NLT.
6. Luke 2:13-14 NASB.
7. Matthew 1:19 NLT.
8. Matthew 1:21 NLT.
9. Philippians 2:6-9 NLT.
10. For more on evidence for Jesus, see www.WhoIsJesus-Really.com and www.probe.org.
11. For a summary of prophecies Jesus fulfilled, see Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers, 1979), 141-177.
12. Micah 5:2.
13. Matthew 2:1 NASB.
14. Isaiah 7:14 NIV.
15. Matthew 1:18, 22-25; Luke 1:27, 34.
16. Peter W. Stoner, Science Speaks (Chicago: Moody Press, 1969), 99-112.
17. McDowell, op. cit., 62-63.
18. Frederic G. Kenyon, The Bible and Archaeology (New York: Harper & Row, 1940), 288; in McDowell, op. cit., 41. McDowell develops these points in pp. 39-41 ff.
19. John 3:16 NLT.

Adapted from Rusty Wright, “Christmas: More than a Story?” Advance magazine, December 2004, pp. 12-15. Copyright © 2004 Rusty Wright. Used by permission.

© 2005 Probe Ministries




Was Jesus Really Born of a Virgin?

Aren’t Miracles Impossible?

Of the four canonical gospels, there are two, Matthew and Luke, that provide details about the birth of Jesus. The accounts may reflect the unique perspectives of both Joseph (in Matthew’s gospel) and Mary (in Luke’s), for there are many differences between the two.{1} However, of the things they share in common, one cannot be missed. They both declare that Jesus was miraculously conceived through the supernatural intervention of the Holy Spirit in the womb of a young virgin named Mary.{2} Today, some scholars regard the doctrine of Jesus’ virgin birth as simply a legendary development of the early church. The story is said to be myth–not history.{3} But if we ask why they think this, we may notice something very interesting. For the virgin birth is usually not rejected on grounds of insufficient historical evidence. Rather, it is more often rejected on the presupposition that miracles are simply impossible.{4} This is quite revealing. For if such scholars really believe that miracles are impossible, then no amount of evidence can convince them that one has actually occurred. Their minds are made up before they examine the evidence. In theory, they view miracle claims as guilty until proven innocent. In actual practice, however, they never reach a verdict of “Not Guilty”!

The belief that miracles are impossible often arises from a naturalistic worldview. Strict naturalism completely rejects any notion of the supernatural.{5} All that exists are atoms and the void.{6} If naturalists are right, it follows that miracles are indeed impossible. While strange things that we do not fully understand may sometimes occur, there must, in principle, be a naturalistic explanation for every event in the universe.

But are such naturalists right? Since my aim in this article is to explore the historicity of Jesus’ virgin birth, I will not attempt now to refute naturalism. Instead, I will simply point out that if a personal Creator God exists (and there is good evidence to believe that One does), then miracles are at least possible. For clearly, such a God might choose to intervene in His creation to bring about an effect for which there was no prior natural cause. And that is at least one way of describing a miracle.

Thus, if a personal Creator God exists, miracles are possible. And if miracles are possible, then Jesus’ virginal conception and birth are possible. And if the virgin birth is possible, then the only way we can determine if it actually occurred is by carefully examining the evidence both for and against it. Next we will continue our inquiry by looking at an ancient prophecy that some think actually foretold Christ’s virgin birth!

Didn’t Matthew Misread Isaiah?

Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus was conceived through the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit while Mary was still a virgin.{7} He then goes further, however, by declaring that this miraculous event fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy in the book of Isaiah. He writes:

Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,” which…. means, “God with us.”{8}

Some scholars are unimpressed with Matthew’s interpretation of Isaiah. John Dominic Crossan unequivocally states, “The prophecy in Isaiah says nothing whatsoever about a virginal conception.”{9} Did Matthew misread Isaiah?

Let’s acknowledge that the original context of Isaiah’s prophecy may not be exclusively about the virginal conception of Jesus. The year is 734 B.C. and King Ahaz of Judah is terrified to learn that Aram and Israel have formed an alliance against him. Isaiah is sent to reassure Ahaz that God is in control and that the aims of the alliance will not succeed. Ahaz is told to request a sign from the Lord, a means of confirming the truth of Isaiah’s message. But he refuses!{10} Annoyed at the king’s stubbornness, Isaiah declares that the Lord will give a sign anyway: an almah (a maiden of marriageable age) will conceive a son and call his name Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey upon reaching an age of moral discernment. But before this happens, the land of the two dreaded kings will be forsaken.{11} Should this prophecy be understood to refer exclusively to Jesus’ virginal conception? If so, how does it relate to the promise that the Aram-Israel alliance would soon be broken and their lands forsaken (a promise fulfilled within twelve years time)?{12}

It’s quite possible that Isaiah’s prophecy had a dual fulfillment:{13} initially, in Isaiah’s day; and ultimately, at the birth of Jesus. In this view the almah, or young maiden of Isaiah’s prophecy, is a type of the virgin Mary, who later conceived Jesus through the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit.{14} So although a young woman in Isaiah’s day bore a child named Immanuel, Jesus is later recognized by Matthew to also be Immanuel, “God with us” in a new and unprecedented way. Thus, Matthew didn’t misread Isaiah. And if this is so, we must continue to consider this prophecy in weighing the evidence for Jesus’ virgin birth.

But even if we’ve correctly explained Matthew’s use of Isaiah’s prophecy, we must still consider the alleged contradictions in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. We will address this issue in the next section.

Don’t Matthew and Luke Contradict Each Other?

{15} Some scholars see the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke as contradictory. If so, their historical reliability is in doubt, along with their accounts of Jesus’ virgin birth. But are these narratives really contradictory? Let’s take a closer look.

First, some think Matthew implies that Mary and Joseph resided permanently in Bethlehem before Jesus’ birth, whereas Luke says they lived in Nazareth and only came to Bethlehem for the census.{16} But Matthew never actually tells us the couple’s residence before Jesus’ birth. He simply says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, just like Luke.{17}

But if Mary and Joseph resided in Nazareth prior to Jesus’ birth, then why, after their flight into Egypt, does Matthew seem to suggest that they intended to return to Judea rather than their home in Nazareth?{18} It’s helpful to recall that Jesus was “the promised king of David’s line.”{19} Might not his parents, then, have wished to raise Him in His ancestral home?{20} This is actually quite probable. But regardless of their original intention, let’s not forget that Matthew goes on to write that Joseph, being warned in a dream not to settle in Judea, did take his family back to Nazareth after all.{21}

Finally, some think Luke’s narrative leaves no room for Matthew’s account about the visit of the magi and sojourn in Egypt. These events could only have occurred after Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, forty days after His birth.{22} But Luke 2:39, which concludes this presentation, says that when Jesus’ parents “had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to . . . Nazareth.” This raises a question. Does Luke’s statement prohibit an initial return to Bethlehem, thus casting doubt on Matthew’s account of the magi and flight into Egypt?

It’s important to notice the emphasis in Luke 2:39. It’s not so much on when Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth, but rather that they did not return until after they had fulfilled the requirements of the Law.{23} Strictly speaking, Luke 2:39 does not disallow the events recorded by Matthew. Luke may not have known of the visit of the magi and flight into Egypt, or he may have chosen to omit this information. Either way, however, “the silence of one narrative regarding events recorded in another is quite a different thing from actual contradiction.”{24} Thus, the virgin birth cannot be dismissed on the grounds that the infancy narratives are contradictory–they’re not.

But aren’t we forgetting the most obvious hypothesis of all? Is the story of Jesus’ virgin birth simply a myth, comparable to other such stories from the ancient world? We’ll examine this question in the next section.

Wasn’t the Virgin Birth Story Derived from Pagan Myths?

Not long after Matthew and Luke finished writing their gospels, some scholars began contending that the story of Jesus’ virgin birth was derived from pagan myths. Unfortunately, such ideas continue to haunt the Church even today. John Dominic Crossan cites parallels between the deification of Octavius by the Roman Senate and that of Jesus by the early church.{25} In each case, says Crossan, the decision to deify their leader was closely connected with the invention of a divine birth story. The official biography of Octavius claimed the god Apollo in the form of a snake impregnated his mother.{26} Jesus’ biographers claimed the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary conceived Him. In Crossan’s view, neither story is historically true: “The divine origins of Jesus are…just as…mythological as those of Octavius.”{27} The stories simply help explain why these men received divine honors.

Is Crossan’s hypothesis plausible? One can certainly find scholars who embrace such ideas. But a careful comparison of the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth with the many miraculous birth stories in pagan literature reveals several important differences.

First, the accounts of Jesus’ virgin birth show none “of the standard literary marks of the myth genre.”{28} Matthew and Luke are written as history–not mythology. They mention places, people, and events that can be verified through normal methods of historical and archaeological inquiry. The beginning of Luke’s gospel “reads very much like prefaces to other generally trusted historical and biographical works of antiquity.”{29} Thus, there is a clear difference in genre between the gospels and pagan myths.

Another difference can be seen in the religious atmosphere of these stories. The pagan myths are polytheistic; the gospels, monotheistic. The miraculous birth stories in pagan literature usually focus on a god’s lust for some mortal woman.{30} Since this lust is typically gratified through sexual intercourse, the resulting conception and birth are hardly virginal. We are thus far removed from the description of Jesus’ virginal conception in the gospels. There we find no hint that God’s love for Mary in any way parallels the lust of Apollo for the mother of Octavius.

These are just two of many differences between the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth and the miraculous birth stories in pagan literature. But even these differences make the theory of pagan derivation unlikely. Remember, this theory requires us to believe that strict moral monotheists, who claimed to be writing history, borrowed some of the crudest elements from polytheistic myths to tell the story of Jesus’ birth! Frankly, it’s incredible. But could a theory of Jewish derivation still work? We’ll conclude with this question.

Wasn’t the Virgin Birth Story Derived from Jewish Thought?

Some scholars have speculated that the story of Jesus’ virgin birth may have been derived from an imaginative Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament.{31} The story is not historical; it is a literary fiction of early Jewish Christians. It may have resulted from reflection on Isaiah 7:14, which says in part, “Behold, a virgin will be with child.” What could be more natural than this verse becoming the source of inspiration for a legendary tale about the virgin birth of the Messiah?{32}

But would this really have been natural? There’s actually no clear evidence that pre-Christian Judaism understood Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy of the Messiah at all, much less his virginal conception.{33} Indeed, many contend that the Hebrew text of Isaiah says nothing whatever about a virginal conception and birth.{34} But if that is so, it would seem quite unlikely for early Jewish Christians to have read the verse in such a way!

Others believe the translation of Isaiah from Hebrew to Greek, known as the Septuagint, may have provided the initial impulse for such a reading. The Greek text of Isaiah 7:14 translates the Hebrew term almah, meaning “a young woman of marriageable age,” with the Greek term parthenos, meaning “virgin”. Could this translation have led some Jewish Christians to conclude that Isaiah was prophesying the virgin birth of the Messiah? And if so, might they have invented the story of Jesus’ virgin birth as the alleged “fulfillment” of Isaiah’s prediction?

While one can claim that they might have done so, there’s no evidence that they actually did. But if not, what could account for early Christianity’s understanding of Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy of the Messiah’s virgin birth? Well, the historical reality of Jesus’ virgin birth could have done so! After all, it’s one thing to think that early Jewish Christians, without any precedent in Jewish thought, would invent the story of Jesus’ virgin birth from an imaginative interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy. But it’s another thing entirely to think that by beginning with a historically reliable account of Jesus’ virgin birth, they eventually concluded that Isaiah had indeed prophesied such an event.{35}

Only the latter hypothesis is supported by evidence. Particularly important in this regard are the gospels of Matthew and Luke. These sources have been shown to be quite historically reliable. Their accounts of Jesus’ birth, though apparently written independently of one another, are free of contradiction. Indeed, apart from an unproven bias against the supernatural, there is little reason to doubt the accuracy of their reports. Thus, there do appear to be adequate grounds for believing that Jesus really was born of a virgin!

Notes

1. Such differences do not, of course, imply contradictions. See the third section for more information.

2. See Matt. 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-35.

3. For instance, John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper, 1994), writes, “I understand the virginal conception of Jesus to be a confessional statement about Jesus’ status and not a biological statement about Mary’s body. It is later faith in Jesus as an adult retrojected mythologically onto Jesus as an infant. . .” (23). And again a little later, “Jesus . . . was born . . . to Joseph and Mary.” (26)

4. For example, in Paul Copan, ed., Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? A debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1998), 61, Dr. Craig questions Dr. Crossan about his anti-supernaturalistic presuppositions and whether they do not rule out the possibility of miracles a priori. Dr. Crossan admits that, insofar as miracles are concerned, “[I]t’s a theological presupposition of mine that God does not operate that way.”

5. Ibid. In fact, although it is difficult to pin him down this appears to be Dr. Crossan’s position. At one point in the debate, Dr. Craig asks Dr. Crossan, “What about the statement that God exists? Is that a statement of faith or fact?” Dr. Crossan responds, “It’s a statement of faith for all those who make it” (49). But suppose no human beings existed to make such statements of faith. In order to clarify Dr. Crossan’s response, Dr. Craig later asks, “Was there a being who was the Creator and Sustainer of the universe during that period of time when no human beings existed?” Dr. Crossan’s answer is quite revealing: “Well, I would probably prefer to say no because what you’re doing is trying to put yourself in the position of God and ask…’How is God apart from faith?’ I don’t know if you can do that. You can do it, I suppose, but I don’t know if it really has any point” (emphasis mine, 51). This answer appears to commit Dr. Crossan to an atheistic (and thus strictly naturalistic) worldview.

6. So said the famous Greek atomist philosopher, Democritus of Abdera.

7. See Matt. 1:20-25.

8. Matt. 1:22-23.

9. Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, 17. He goes on to say, “Clearly, somebody went seeking in the Old Testament for a text that could be interpreted as prophesying a virginal conception, even if such was never its original meaning”(18).

10. See Isaiah 7:1-12.

11. See Isaiah 7:13-16.

12. Charles Caldwell Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978). Ryrie comments, “Within twelve years after this prophecy, Damascus was captured by Assyria (732) and Israel had fallen (722).” (1024)

13. Although some writers object to the notion of a “dual fulfillment” of prophecy, there appear to be other examples of this phenomenon in Scripture. For instance, in Joel 2:28-32 we find a promise of a future outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The prophecy is linked with various cosmic disturbances that will immediately precede the Day of the Lord. Later, in connection with the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, Peter declares, “This is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel” (v. 16). He proceeds to quote almost the entire passage of Joel 2:28-32. However, it seems that only the first part of the prophecy, concerning the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, was actually fulfilled in Peter’s day. What’s more, the book of Revelation seems to indicate that the cosmic disturbances mentioned by Joel await a yet future fulfillment (see Rev. 6:12). While scholars have offered various solutions to account for Peter’s use of Joel in Acts 2, it seems best to understand Joel’s prophecy as having some sort of “dual fulfillment”: an initial fulfillment on the day of Pentecost; an ultimate fulfillment before the second coming of Christ. The “dual fulfillment” view has the advantage of preserving the original integrity of the prophet’s message, while at the same time recognizing that some prophecies may be Divinely intended to include more than one fulfillment throughout salvation history. In light of this very real possibility, we should humbly acknowledge that Matthew’s use of Isaiah and Peter’s use of Joel confront us with complex interpretive issues. It is partly for this reason that very capable scholars reach different conclusions about the meaning of these passages. After careful consideration I was inclined toward the “dual fulfillment” position; however, I recognize that others will want to adopt some other perspective.

14. Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible, 1024.

15. In this section I have relied heavily on the analysis given in J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1971), 192-97.

16. I have chosen to examine some of the more difficult “contradictions.” But it’s important to point out that some of the alleged difficulties are quite easily dealt with. For instance, Luke records that shepherds visited the baby Jesus in response to an angelic announcement (Luke 2:8-20). Matthew, however, tells not of shepherds but of magi, who responded not to an angelic announcement, but to an astronomical observation (Matt. 2:1-12). But surely there’s no contradiction here. After all, it’s entirely possible that both the shepherds and the magi visited Jesus! Doubtless the accounts are selective and have not recorded every detail, but this does not mean they are contradictory.

17. Matt. 2:1; Luke 2:1-7.

18. Matt. 2:19-23.

19. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 193.

20. Ibid.

21. Matt. 2:22-23.

22. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 196, explains: “The visit of the magi could hardly have taken place during this forty-day interval; for it would have been impossible to take the child into the Temple when the wrath of the king was so aroused…Evidently, therefore, the flight into Egypt took place immediately after the magi had come; no visit to the Temple could have intervened. If, therefore, the two narratives are to be harmonized, we must suppose that when the presentation in the Temple had been completed, Joseph and Mary returned with the child to Bethlehem, received there the visit of the magi, and then fled into Egypt.”

23. Ibid., 196-97.

24. Ibid., 197.

25. Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, 1-5, 26-28.

26. Peter Jennings, interview with John Dominic Crossan, “The Search for Jesus,” ABC Special, June 26, 2000. More general information about this ABC special program can be found at the following URL: http://more.abcnews.go.com/onair/abcnewsspecials/pjr000626_jesus_promo.html. A conservative, evangelical response to Peter Jennings’ ABC special was done by John Ankerberg, “A Response to ABC’s The Search for Jesus: Part 1: Questions About His Birth,” The John Ankerberg Show (videotape copy), 2001. More general information can be found at John Ankerberg’s Web site at: www.ankerberg.com.

27. Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, 26-27.

28. Norman L. Geisler, “Virgin Birth of Christ,” in Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1999), 763.

29. Craig Blomberg, quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 39-40.

30. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 338.

31. This might be referred to as midrash, or midrash pesher, which “is an imaginative interpretation or expansion based on some OT text.” B. Witherington III, “Birth of Jesus,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 60.

32. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 287.

33. Witherington, “Birth of Jesus,” 64. See also Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 297.

34. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 288. See also, John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, 17.

35. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 286-87.

©2001 Probe Ministries.