The Birth of Christ
We come now to the New Testament’s account of the actual birth of Jesus, which is found in Luke 2 (read 2:1,2). Unlike mythological stories which are not connected with actual history, Luke is careful to root this event in history by telling us when it occurred. Augustus reigned from 29/27 BC until 14 AD. He issued censuses every 14 years, and we have record of one issued in 20 BC. Quirinius was probably governor of Syria from 6-3 BC, so the census issued during his governorship would be issued about 6 BC. Matthew says Jesus was born while Herod the Great was alive, and he died in the spring of 4 BC. So Jesus was probably born in late 5 BC or early 4 BC. The point, again, is that Luke is telling us that this is a historical event, not a myth.
The Incongruity Of Jesus' Birth
Read 2:3-14. Because of our familiarity with this narrative, we tend to miss the shocking, outrageous discrepancy/incongruity between who this baby is and the way he is born.
WHO IS THIS BABY? He is so great that the angels, who have seen God in all his glory, cry out "Glory to God in the highest!" In other words, he is the greatest Person to ever be born.
He is the "Savior" - the deliverer from all evil and ills; the One who brings peace between humans and God (2:14), and who will heal all the other rifts caused by this root rift
He is the "Christ" – the long-promised Davidic Messiah-King who will establish God’s kingdom over all the earth
He is "the Lord" – God himself entering the human race (Isa. 9:6; see Lk. 1:47,76)
HOW IS HE BORN? We would expect 2:12 to read, "And this shall be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in the finest silk, lying in a lavish crib with mobiles, housed in a palace, parented by royalty, waited on by many attendants, and visited by dignitaries." Instead it reads (2:12). Note especially these three outrageous inconsistencies:
He is born into unsanitary conditions (2:7,12b). Jesus was born in a stable (smell of animal excrement, not pine-needles and Christmas cookies), placed in a feeding trough (spittle, munched straw), and clothed with common rag strips (maybe mother’s underclothes).
He is born amid the scandal of apparent illegitimacy (2:5). Joseph and Mary are engaged, but not married. Of course she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, but most people obviously believed that Mary had gotten pregnant by having premarital sex with Joseph or another man. This continued to plague Jesus throughout his entire life (see Mk. 6:3 "the son of Mary;" Jn. 8:19,41,48). Maybe this was why no one else would give them a room.
He is visited by the dregs of Jewish peasantry (2:8). Shepherds were not exactly the "movers and shakers" of Israel. At best, they represent the lowly working class. One scholar, citing slightly later rabbis, says "Shepherds were despised people. They were suspected of not being very careful to distinguish between `mine' and `thine'; for this reason, . . . they were debarred from giving evidence in court."1 Yet they received a personal angelic invitation.
SUMMARIZE: Luke wants us to feel this incongruity, and to ask “What’s going on here?” Did this get away from God (like Zeus; “Oh myself . . .!”)? No, it’s even worse than that—God wanted it to be this way! Jesus' birth, like every other aspect of his life and death, were part of the "predetermined plan . . . of God" (Acts 2:23). The same God who performed a miracle of pregnancy in Mary’s womb and who providentially worked through Augustus’ census to fulfill these Old Testament predictions also superintended and orchestrated these outrageous details!
What would you think of a wealthy and powerful man who arranged for some poor teen girl to get pregnant while unmarried, who had ample means to provide for a sanitary and dignified birth for her child, but instead purposefully orchestrated it so that he had to be born in a dirty garage somewhere, be cribbed in an oil drain pan, be wrapped in mechanics rags, and then be visited by street-people? How would you feel about that man? Unless he gave me a good explanation, I would report him for child abuse! There is nothing cute about this—this is shocking, embarrassing, outrageous! What's going on here?
And consider this: Jesus also voluntarily chose to enter the human race in this way! It wasn’t like there was an argument between the Father anfd the Son, with the Father saying “I’ll fix you . . .!” Unlike the rest of us, who have no choice about the conditions of our birth, Jesus existed prior to his birth and agreed to be born this way. What's going on here? Theologians try to capture the answer to this question in a technical term . . .
The Humiliation of Jesus
We are talking about what theologians call the humiliation of Jesus: the fact that he voluntarily chose to give up his environment and position in order to live a life of servitude, misunderstanding and ultimate rejection. Many think this humiliation occurred only at his death, but it actually began at his birth. This becomes very apparent as you read through the gospels.
MISUNDERSTANDING: SCANDAL OF APPARENT ILLEGITIMACY AT BIRTH (Jn 8:19,41,48) >> SCANDAL OF IDENTIFICATION W/ SINNERS AT BAPTISM (Mt 3:13-15) >> SCANDAL OF FOOT-WASHING (Jn 13:6-8) >> SCANDAL OF THE CROSS (Mt. 16:22; Mk 15:17-20,32)
REJECTION: INN (Lk. 2:7) >> NATION (Jn 1:11) >> LEADERS (Mk 3:6) >> HOME TOWN >> (Mk 6:3) >> FAMILY (Jn 7:5; Mk 3:21) >> FOLLOWERS (Jn 6:66) >> DISCIPLES (Jn 13:27,30; Mt 26:43,56) >> THE FATHER (Mk 15:34)
So the manner of Jesus’ birth was fitting because it was a foreshadowing of the rest of his life and death: misunderstanding and rejection--the humiliation of the Son. J. I. PACKER: "The crucial significance of the cradle at Bethlehem lies in its place in the sequence of steps down that led the Son of God to the cross of Calvary, and we do not understand it till we see it in this context."2 “One hardly expects to find Messiah in an animal room. One would expect a palace. But the Messiah’s humble and common origins fit nicely with the task that he shall bear for all his people, including especially the humble, hungry and poor. Messiah’s life will contain an unusual bookend for a king, since he was born in an animal room and will die with robbers.”3 This raises another question . . .
What does Jesus' humiliation teach us?
The answer to this question is so vast and deep that it would require its own series. This morning, we cover only the two most important biblical answers . . .
It teaches us that our situation is desperate.
Have you ever watched an EMERGENCY ROOM STAFF at work? What would you think about ER workers if you were completely unfamiliar with western medicine? How they cut and tear off clothing, leaving their patients stark naked for all to see, make deep incisions without anesthesia, jam tubes down their gagaing throats, jab long needles into their abdomens, zap their chests with incredible amounts of electricity which cause them twitch and flop. If you didn't know better, you'd think they were cruel and sadistic. If you ask them if they enjoy doing these things, they will probably look at you like you are crazy. These measures are not pleasant—they are necessary in order to save lives. They have to take drastic measures in order to deal with desperate situations.
God says our situation is desperate. When the apostle Paul describes our situation, he uses adjectives like “helpless,” “lost,” “dead,” and “without hope.” Our rebellion against God has so completely alienated us from him, our guilt before him has so completely condemned us, our sin has so completely enslaved us that nothing short of this drastic measure by God through Jesus (the CROSS) will rescue us. Paul also says that if there was any way that we could rescue ourselves, God would never have taken this measure (Gal. 2:21). But this leads us immediately to another revelation . . .
ER workers take these drastic measures because it is their job (duty; money); God takes his drastic measure because he loves us with an amazing love.
It is generally conceded that the truest index of our love for someone is how much we are willing to sacrifice for him/her. My parents proved their love for me by their willingness to sacrifice sleep when I needed fed as an infant, by paying big medical bills when I was sick, etc. My wife proves her love for me by her willingness to sacrifice her own personal desires and preferences for my good. My friends prove their love by being there for me during crises, even and especially when this is costly. If you love someone, you sacrifice for him.
How much does God love you? The Bible says he has answered this question when he sent his Son into the world and put him to death for me (1 Jn. 4:9,10; Rom. 5:6-10). We might sacrifice for our own spouses or children; God made this sacrifice for us even though we did not belong to him. We might sacrifice for those who are our friends; God made this sacrifice for us when we were his enemies. We might sacrifice for those who love us; God made this sacrifice for us when we were sinners who deserved his wrath. How many of you are willing to lay down your life to resuce the I-270 sniper?
No other religion has a God who loves you this much. People say to me, “Well, Gary—all religions teach pretty much the same thing.” This is either profound ignorance or willful self-deception! No other religion’s god comes close to the willingness to pay this price.
The question is: Will you respond to God’s amazing love by receiving the gift of his Son? What does it look like to respond to God’s love through Jesus?
This past Christmas morning (as with the previous 26 Christmases) I found a gift from my wife under the tree with a sticker on it that said: “To My Love.” That gift was a token of her love for me. What is the proof that I believe that she loves me? That I open that gift in her presence, and thank her—not just for her gift, but for the love it signifies. What if I left that gift unopened not only all Christmas day, but all Christmas week so that it was still there (unopened) on New Years Day when she took down the tree? What would this mean? There really isn’t much wiggle-room here, is there? It would mean that I don’t believe in or value her love for me. To leave her gift unopened would be to reject her love.
So with you and me. This is God’s gift, wrapped in the body of his Son and signed with his own blood. Will you open God’s gift by saying: “Thank you for loving me enough to send your Son to die for my sins. Thank you for loving me enough to offer me this amazing gift of forgiveness. I receive it gratefully and gladly?” Or will you leave it unopened, and by default reject God’s gift and the love that sent it—saying by default: “I don’t want it. I don’t need it. I don’t trust that it is a good gift?”
1Strack-Billerbeck, cited in Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary of the Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1972), p. 115. Bock syas that this rabbinic source is late (5th cent. AD), and that the shepherds represent the lowly and humble.
2J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1975), p. 51.
3 Darrel S. Bock, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Luke, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1994), p. 219.
Next week: The Visit of the Magi
Copyright 2003 Gary DeLashmutt