"Business or pleasure?," I queried.
The salt and pepper haired traveler to my right lowered his Wall Street Journal and smiled at me over half spectacles. "Business," he said. "A conference on advertising. And you?"
"A church meeting."
"Yes," I said. "I'm a minister."
He folded the newspaper and turned toward me. "I'm not religious myself," he informed me. "I do believe in God. But there's so much in the Bible that is just unrealistic."
"Like what?" I asked.
"Like Jesus Christ," he said. "Undoubtedly, He was a very nice person and a wise teacher. We'd all be better off if we did unto others as we'd like them to do to us. But the whole 'Son of God' thing—a virgin having a baby, miracles, rising from the dead. . . . That's way too much for me.”
"So, the God you believe in," I observed, "really isn't a very capable God, is He?"
"I'm not sure what you mean," he said.
"I mean your God doesn't seem to have power to do what He claims."
He looked intently at me while the flight attendant set ginger ales in front of us. "I'll have to think about that," he said, turning toward the window.
Nothing Too Difficult
If God is really God, then He has the power to do anything. Scripture claims that God did do some amazing, one-of-a-kind miracles in order to bring salvation to this world. Take the virgin birth for example. Though Jesus was born from the womb of a human mother, the Bible claims He did not get His start in life in the usual way. An early prophecy of the Messiah tells the manner of His conception: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son" (Isaiah 7:14, NKJV).* Later writers understood that this was a prophecy about Jesus. Luke reminds us that Mary had experienced no sexual intimacy with a man when an angel told her she'd give birth to the Messiah.
" 'How will this be,' Mary asked the angel, 'since I am a virgin?' " (Luke 1:34).
Matthew adds that her husband, Joseph, "had no union with her" until she gave birth to Jesus (Matthew 1:25). Although modern scientists have made fantastic strides in reproductive technology, we know of no other instance in which a human being has reproduced without the benefit of genetic material from both a male and a female. If such happened to Mary, clearly a scientist greater than any of ours on Earth was at work in Mary's life.
Given the circumstances of Jesus' birth, though, we should hardly be surprised that skeptics questioned His paternity. The aspersions began during His lifetime. When He visited His hometown, Nazareth, people sarcastically asked, "Isn't this Mary's son?" (Mark 6:3). By pointedly omitting Joseph, they meant to imply that Jesus was of illegitimate birth. To the extent that His life did not begin in the usual way, they were right. What they didn't realize or didn't' accept was that Jesus was the Son of another, far greater Father than Joseph. I can think of at least three reasons why God began His Son's life on earth in such an unconventional way.
1. The virgin birth gives evidence of Jesus' Divine origin.
When God's people first understood that God would send them a Messiah, they anticipated a man of great power: a charismatic king or a powerful general—someone who could take political and military leadership and mold a mighty nation. What they didn't expect was a wise teacher, a gentle healer, who would sacrifice His life for them. It was not Jesus' human power that made Him our Savior, it was His relationship with God.
His had more than a friendship with God. Scripture asserts that Jesus was God. While human life normally begins with conception, Jesus had existed in heaven long before He made His home in a human body. The apostle John says that "he was with God in the beginning" (John 1:2). Since God has existed eternally, then so was Jesus. He was, in fact, a unique combining of humanity and divinity, fully God and fully human.
In order to save us, God needed someone who would pay the penalty for sin. So "God presented [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement" (Romans 3:25). Had He been merely a man, we might justifiably say, "Many human beings have been martyred for their faith. Why should this person's death matters?” Jesus' death matters because He, being both human and divine, was uniquely qualified to pay the price for our sins. Jesus could act as the substitute for the sins of all humankind, so that we needn't ever die the final, eternal death.
The virgin birth is evidence that Jesus is more than merely a good man and a wise teacher. Said the great Christian thinker C. S. Lewis, "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic... or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. . . . But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us."
2. The virgin birth reveals Jesus as the bridge between God and humankind.
I have a rose in my garden that is a cross between two very different "rose parents." One side of the family tree is a rough, thorny, weedy variety, with much vigor and disease resistance, but its flowers are of no special beauty. My rose's other "parent" has large, glorious blossoms, but it is a weak variety that gets all the diseases that so bedevil roses. The "child" got the best of both parents: lovely flowers and vigorous growth.
The analogy isn't perfect, but it conveys something of Jesus' special place as a bridge between the human world and the divine world. Jesus carried the essential qualities of both sides of His family tree. As God, Jesus knew His Father's perfection, His hatred of sin, as well as His love of humanity, and the glory He longs to grant us. As a human being, Jesus knew our weaknesses—how temptation overcomes us, and how suffering and sadness can devastate our lives.
The virgin birth proves Jesus to be the only One in the entire universe who knows intimately both humanity's experience and God's. On our behalf, He proved that He understands our difficulty in meeting temptation, and He demonstrated that we can overcome it. "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). Now "seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens" (Hebrews 8:1, NKJV), He is able to draw on His experience as a human being to help Him plead to His Father for our forgiveness.
In the words of the apostle Paul, "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ," (2 Corinthians 5:19), thus restoring the relationship between Himself and struggling, suffering humanity.
3. Jesus' unusual conception gave Him unusual authority.
At a medical meeting, one after another of the well-dressed and well- credentialed physicians came to the microphone to discuss the technicalities of an experimental surgery that none of them had yet attempted. One presenter questioned the viability of the procedure. Suddenly, a man in the audience stood. He was an ordinary looking man, dressed casually, and he spoke without polish or pretense. Yet the observation he made about the procedure under discussion was an astute one.
The presenter behind the microphone seemed displeased at being so forthrightly challenged. He glared at the questioner and demanded, "Who are you, sir?" "I'm the physician who pioneered this surgery," he answered, "the only one in this room who has actually performed it." In an instant the presenter's confrontational demeanor changed, and the audience became alert. It didn't matter to them how the man looked or was dressed. What mattered was that he could speak with authority.
Throughout Jesus' life, when people wanted to disregard Him, they denigrated His authority. "Who does He think He is?" they asked, in many different ways. "Where does He get the authority to heal people, to teach new ideas, to contradict old doctrines?" While some questioned the legitimacy of Jesus' birth, those who knew that Jesus' mother Mary was a pious and chaste woman realized she was telling the truth: since the Child she bore was not the Son of a human father, He must be the Son of God. And it was undoubtedly those who believed in Jesus' divine origin who told the story of His miraculous conception to others. Soon many realized that Jesus came to this earth with more than human authority.
"I think I see your point," my seat-mate said to me some time later. "God surely is capable of doing such a thing as the virgin birth, so it only makes sense to believe that His claim to actually have done it is true."
"Exactly," I said. "Otherwise, He's not only weak, but also a liar."And I will add that if that claim is true, then so are all the rest. Just as God proved He could put divinity into human form at the virgin birth, so at Jesus' resurrection He proved that He could bestow an infinite future upon all humanity. If one claim is true, so is the other. If the virgin birth was possible, so is eternal life—for all of us.
This article originally appeared in the Signs of Times in the 2012 issue.