The infancy narratives in the Gospels proclaim Jesus as the fulfillment of messianic hopes and expectations. God, however, didn’t do things the way most people expected. Our familiarity with the Christmas story may cause us to miss the unexpected wonder, shock, and newness accompanying these events. In our book The First Days of Jesus, Alexander Stewart and I discuss a series of scandals: the virgin birth, the incarnation, Jesus’s lowly birth, and the scandal of the cross. At the root of these scandals is the virgin birth, so let’s take a moment to reflect on this remarkable event and its implications as we prepare to celebrate the “scandal” of Christmas.
The Scandal of the Virgin Birth
Matthew tells us that when Joseph, Mary’s fiancé, became aware of her pregnancy, he was planning to divorce her, apparently because he assumed some form of infidelity, an assumption that would have been shared by many others. Joseph would have carried through with the divorce if he hadn’t been instructed by an angel in a dream about the true nature of Mary’s pregnancy (Matt 1:18–25).
By the end of the second century, however, Celsus, a Jew opposing Christianity, lodged the charge that Jesus “invented his birth from a virgin” while he in fact was “born in a certain Jewish village, of a poor woman of the country, who gained her subsistence by spinning, and who was turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery.” He surmises that Mary, “after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child.”
Then, Celsus continues, “having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt because his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, [Jesus] returned to his own country, highly elated because them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God” (Origen, Against Celsus 1.28). In this way, Celsus—who seems to have made up his story in response to the biblical infancy narratives to discourage Jews from believing in Jesus—became one of the first of many skeptics to dispute the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ origins.
Emmanuel, God with Us
Why a virgin conception? Why didn’t God send Jesus in some way that was less open to misunderstanding and scandal? As Christians, we’re so used to speaking about Jesus’ birth from the virgin Mary that we often forget how earthshaking this idea was. Gabriel announced to Zechariah that John would prepare the way for Yahweh, the God of Israel, himself to come to his people (Luke 1:16–17). Remarkably, he did so by taking on humanity in Jesus, “Emmanuel, God with us” (Matt 1:23).
The virgin birth is incredible and amazing but not impossible; as the angel told Mary, “for nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). God in the flesh was born as a baby, grew up as a human being, and walked this earth as a man. This is one of the strongest responses to the problem of evil. God didn’t remain aloof and distant. He entered our world of pain, frailty, vulnerability, suffering, and death. He walked alongside us and endured the full fury of evil, oppression, and injustice.
When we suffer, and watch those suffer whom we love, we can do so knowing that God suffered alongside us and on our behalf to rescue us from suffering and to provide an eternal home where there will be no more tears, death, mourning, crying, or pain. While not everything may be perfect in your and my life this Christmas season or at any time during our short lives on this sin-scarred earth, all will be well eternally for those who have placed their trust in Jesus, the virgin-born, crucified, and risen Savior.
Jesus’s Return and Our Part in His Mission
What’s more, looking forward beyond Christ’s first coming to his return, we find that in the meantime we, as Jesus’s followers, have a role to play in God’s story as well. Those of us who have trusted Christ and have embarked with him and our fellow believers on his mission are characters in the unfolding story of God’s mission in this world—to proclaim the salvation from sin and death Jesus accomplished which he makes available free of charge for everyone who believes. As we fulfill his purposes for us in his plan, we eagerly look forward to Christ’s return to set everything right once and for all. “Even so, come Lord Jesus!”
Andreas J. Köstenberger is founder of Biblical Foundations™ and co-author of The First Days of Jesus (Crossway). He serves as senior research professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and as editor of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. He is also a member of the ministry council of God Centered Life.