The Need for Christmas
Dr. Fredk. A. Tatford of England is a well-known lecturer and conference speaker, and the author of over sixty books on Biblical themes.
From the Mediterranean Coast at Acco (or, as it subsequently became, Acre, the Crusaders’ Stronghold), there used to run a great caravan route to Damascus. Near its start, the way divided into three roads, one of which passed through Nazareth. It was a busy city; men of all nations passed through it, stirring the people with their stories of the outside world. It was also the location of one of the 24 courses or groups of priests, who served at the Temple, and the citizens would periodically witness the setting out or the return of the group from Jerusalem.
The people, like all Galileans, were inclined to be hot-blooded and :mpetuous, and the town did not possess a very good reputation. Even today, it is dirty and malodorous and sewage runs down at least one road.
Here dwelt a carpenter, past the prime of life, and a young girl who had been betrothed to him — a girl to whom had come the amazing annunciation of Luke 1:28-33.
Months later the two might have been seen, setting out on the long 80 miles journey to Bethlehem, for the census decreed by Augustus, so that they could be registered at the city to which their clan belonged. The route they took may have made it an even longer journey, for probably they travelled along the bank of the Jordan until they came to the fords of Jericho. They must have passed by the palace of Herod, the Idumean, and doubtless heard the sounds of feasting and revelry, of music and the rowdy shouting of his rough mercenaries: but the palace was not for poor peasants like them.
Because of Mary’s condition, they must have travelled slowly (particularly if, as was normal, she walked, while Joseph rode the ass), but at dark they arrived at Bethlehem. The city had been the home of Boaz (Ruth 1:19; 2:4), and where his house formerly stood, there was now a village inn. The fields of Boaz are still pointed out below. Adjacent to them, and possibly including them, were — in Joseph’s day — fields occupied by flocks of sheep, which were pastured there by Temple shepherds and destined for the sacrifices at Jerusalem. There was the watchtower — the tower of the flock, or Migdal Eder — where the prophet Micah had said that dominion would come to the daughter of Zion (Mic. 4:8). On the grey ridge stood the city from which, the same prophet had said, the Ruler in Israel would come forth (Mic. 5:2).
Over the site of the old inn now stands the Church of the Nativity (the traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam combine to confirm the site), whose bell has been so often broadcast at Christmastime. The entry to the church is through a low door and all must bend to enter. Below is a cave, which is alleged to have been part of the original inn.
Most inns were simply made stone buildings of a single storey, with a square enclosure in which the cattle and asses could be tied up for the night. It was usually open to the view of all and there was no privacy. The inn itself was often a foot or two above the enclosure, but provided no furniture for comfort. The traveller lay on the ground or on rugs he had brought with him. If the inn was full, travellers could frequently try to find some unoccupied space in the courtyard, amid the filthy litter, the unpleasant smell of the animals, and the unwelcome intrusion of the pariah dogs. Even if the inn was a cave, the accommodation was little different: it was free from cattle and was not quite as public.
Here Joseph and Mary came. The inn was full and they settled, faute de mieux, in the dirty enclosure for the night, and here, Mary’s Son was born. There was no help and her own hands wrapped the Babe in swaddling-clothes. It would be difficult to imagine a more humble birth or more undesirable condition.
But, shortly afterwards, the Tower of the Flock blazed into light and awestruck watchers saw angelic visitors descend to the shepherds’ field with the astounding news of the advent of the Lord Messiah, the Saviour (Luke 2:11). The shepherds deserted their flocks and eagerly made their way up the terraced hill to the summit, guided only by the light of the lamp swinging from the rope across the entrance to the village inn. The Eternal had spoken: where was the One so miraculously proclaimed? And there, in the filthy courtyard or part of the cave, they found a Galilean peasant and a young mother, with her newborn babe lying on the straw. There was nothing here to impress the natural eye, but they had been enlightened by the Divine revelation, and they returned glorifying God.
Not even the shepherds, however, realized what had happened, for the Babe upon whom they had gazed was no other than the incarnate God. The fact is still amazing, but the Incarnation was an essential for the redemption of the race.
The Virgin Birth
As sin came into the world by man, so also must atonement be made by man. Adam’s race was universally tainted by sin and no one could, therefore, atone for the sins of another or, indeed, of himself. God, therefore, Himself became man in order that there might be a sinless vehicle through which atonement could be made. When the Word became flesh, it was patently necessary that this should take place in such a way that there could be no transmission of a sinful nature. Hence, Christ entered the world by a sinless birth. “It was in every way most fitting,” says Addis, “that He should enter the world in a new manner, breaking the long chain of birth which had transmitted sinful inclination from age to age, and inaugurating a new order. A fresh start had to be made, and He who was untouched by the carnal passion was to raise us from ‘the death of sin to the life of righteousness.’ Christ was not an ordinary man. He is, in a sense absolutely unique and incommunicable, the Son of God, free from the least taint of sin, the Head of a redeemed and renewed humanity. That being so, the Virgin Birth is no longer a difficulty.
When our Lord came into the world, He was born of a virgin mother and possessed no human father. Parthenogenesis is not an unfamiliar method of reproduction to a biologist, but, it is unique in the history of the human race and, in any case, our Lord’s birth was not even comparable with biological parthenogenesis.
The fact, of course, had been plainly predicted centuries before. The earliest messianic prophecy gave a clear intimation of the Virgin Birth since it referred to the coming Deliverer as “the seed of the woman” (Gen. 3:15). Again, more than three millennia later, God gave Ahaz a sign that “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and call His name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14). It has sometimes been argued that the word almah, used in Isaiah 7:14, actually means a young woman of marriageable age and not necessarily a virgo intacta. In the other instances in which the word is used, however, there is little doubt as to the meaning (Gen. 24:43; Exod. 2:8; Psa. 68:25; Prov. 30:19; Cant. 1:3; 6:8). It is pertinent that the Septuagint translates Isa. 7:14 by the Greek word parthenos (virgin), whilst the Divine intention is made quite clear in Matt. 1:23 when, in quoting the prophecy, the writer also uses the word parthenos (virgin).
Very little is said in the New Testament about the conception and birth of our Lord. Mark is silent about it, but his narrative commences with the Baptist’s ministry and naturally would not mention an earlier event. John’s Gospel was penned after the other three, but raises no question regarding their accuracy. It is sufficient for his purpose that “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (John 1:14). One rendering of John 1:13, however, is “who was not born of double blood (i.e. of human father and mother), and not of a will of the flesh, nor of man’s will but of God,” while an even more ancient reading says, “Who was born, not by mixing the blood of a man and a woman…,” both renderings applying the verse to Christ and not to those who receive Him.
Matthew and Luke alone furnish details of the manner of the Incarnation. The two accounts are very different from each other, but are not contradictory. The Lucan 1:18 towas doubtless based on information supplied by Mary. Many of the details were such as were known only to her personally, and the whole story is told from her angle. Matthew’s record, on the other hand, is presented from Joseph’s angle and contains incidents which were peculiar to him alone, e.g. the four dreams in which angels appeared to him personally (Matt 1:20; 2:13,19, 22). Joseph presumably committed the remarkable facts to writing, and the document became available to Matthew later.
No other New Testament writer makes a direct reference to the Virgin Birth, unless the apostle Paul’s words, “having come of a woman” (Gal. 4:43), are so interpreted, but, as Gore says, “Paul’s conception of the ‘Second Adam’ postulates His miraculous birth.”
The facts are stated in Matt. 1:18 to 2:11 and Luke 1:26 to 2:12. One of the strongest evidences for the truth of the story is that Joseph, who was most intimately concerned, obviously believed it. His decision to divorce his betrothed was recinded and he accepted without question the revelation of the angel. No further doubt crossed his mind and his confidence must have received additional confirmation when his wife bore a son (and not a daughter), precisely as the angel had predicted.
It seems from the inspired record that God appeared in a theophonic clone and that, in some mysterious way, the Virgin was impregnated by the Holy Spirit. Although it is beyond human comprehension, the One around whom the garment of flesh was woven in Mary’s womb was the Eternal God.
The ordinary process of generation results in the origination of a new personality, and this is achieved by the union of man and woman. The incarnation of Christ, however, involved neither a change of personality nor the assumption of a new personality. He assumed a nature which He had not previously possessed and entered into practical experiences which were new to Him, but His original and eternal personality remained unchanged.
The Virgin Birth was a necessity, not only because it was a pre-existent Personality who was coming into the world—and not the creation of a new personality, needing the action of a human father—but also because there was no other way of avoiding the transmission of the sinful nature of the human race. Adam sinned and the taint of sin has been transmitted to every one of his descendants. Christ was sinless in nature. Orr says: “It is sometimes argued that a Virgin Birth is no aid to the explanation of Christ’s sinlessness. Mary being herself sinful in nature, it is held that the taint of sin would be conveyed by one parent as really as by two. It is overlooked that the whole fact is not expressed by saying that Jesus was born of a virgin mother. There is the other factor—‘Conceived by the Holy Ghost’. What happened was a Divine, creative miracle wrought in the production of this new humanity which secured, from its earliest germinal beginnings, freedom from the slightest taint of sin. Paternal generation in such an origin is superfluous. The birth of Jesus was not, as in ordinary birth, the creation of a new personality. It was a Divine Person—already existing—entering on this new mode of existence. Miracle alone could effect such a wonder.”
On the basis of Lev. 17:11, it has been argued that the sinful nature is transmitted through the blood, and that no blood of sinful humanity entered the veins of our Lord. M. R. De Haan produced an interesting theory (adopted by many since) that the mother provides no blood to the embryo, and that the blood comes solely from the father. Since our Lord had no earthly father, sin was not transmitted. The theory is interesting, but quite fallacious. It is true that the circulating blood of the mother and of the fetus are distinct; the later is nucleated, but the former is not. Prof. Rendle Short says: “Blood is derived from solid tissues of the body; the red corpuscles from the marrow, the white from lymph glands, the proteins of the blood from the liver. These tissues are derived from the cells of the embryo under the influence of the genes in the nuclei of the sperm and the ovum, so in the last resort, all the elements of the blood are derived equal, or nearly equal, proportions from the mother and the father.”
The personality of a child depends upon the combination of genes and chromosomes provided by both parents, and heredity and hereditary characteristics and peculiarities are transmitted through these. The sinful nature and tendencies are also evidently transmitted in this way. Neither Mary nor a human father contributed any genes or chromosomes to Mary’s firstborn Son. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit. No sinful tendencies or sinful nature were transmitted to Him. He was the Son of God.
It was essential that He should be a sinless man. Only one whom life was not already forfeited by sin could possibly atone for the sins of others. Not merely did He commit no sin: He was sinless in nature.
There was a need for Christmas and we once more recall the wonder of the Saviour’s birth and the grace that brought Him down to man.
—Reprinted from the Prophetic Witness magazine (Dec. 1982).