The Apple Of God's Eye

December 14, 2009

The Virgin Birth: Fact Or Myth?

Liberal theologians have long denied the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection story and other tenets of traditional doctrine.

It’s easy enough for traditionalists to assign blame to two or three outspoken theologians. But what the theologians really represent is a surfacing of deeply felt, usually unexpressed, doubts in the hearts of the clergy. Increasingly the so-called poetic nature of the nativity stories is stressed in the media. A strict interpretation of the Bible text is summarily dismissed.

Perhaps a little historical perspective on this problem will clarify the controversy.

Brief Modern History

Adolf Harnack was a German liberal scholar. In 1892 he remarked to his students that he did not believe the virgin birth. In his view Jesus of Nazareth was no more than a very capable teacher. Harnack touched off a heated controversy that has ebbed and flowed ever since.

Then Emil Brunner wrote a book about Jesus Christ in 1927 in which he questioned the virgin birth.

After World War II Rudolf Bultmann began his now famous approach of “demythologizing” the Bible. To him New Testament myth had to be separated from New Testament fact. Miracles were indeed statements of faith — but not factual stories.

Students training for the priesthood and ministry have read the published works of these theologians as a regular part of their educational routine. Many have absorbed such teachings, however unconsciously. They have become unsure. They do not understand who or what Jesus Christ really was and is. Their disbelief now extends to the virgin birth.

Thinking men and women are now examining the New Testament documents for themselves. They have no option but to test what they hear, as did the Bereans, who searched “the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11).

Can one honestly believe the virgin birth? Two accounts of Jesus’ birth appear in the gospels — one by Luke and the other by Matthew. Space only allows for an analysis of Luke’s version.

Luke as Gospel Writer

Luke was a physician who conducted himself like the professional he was. His gospel was written for a prominent Roman official. He chose his sources carefully. He talked to eyewitnesses. He recorded truth.

It is unthinkable that Luke would produce a careless assemblage of half-truths. Notice Luke’s prologue: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of what you have been informed” (Luke 1:1-4, Revised Standard Version throughout remainder of article).

Luke’s sober intention was to convey truth — not myths or half-truths. This Greek-speaking physician was nobody’s fool. He was a well-educated man.

Here is the thoughtful conclusion of Professor A. Plummer about Luke the physician and gospel writer and the apostle Paul: “It is not improbable that it was at Tarsus, where there was a school of philosophy and literature rivalling those of Alexandria and Athens, that they first met. Luke may have studied medicine at Tarsus. Nowhere else in Asia Minor could he obtain so good an education” (St. Luke, pp. 20-21, T.&T. Clark, 1896).

Luke is one of the most versatile and prolific of all the New Testament writers. He uses 800 Greek words not employed elsewhere in the New Testament. He spent valuable time with another prolific writer — the apostle Paul who, like Moses, was not only educated in biblical doctrine, but in this world’s secular and legal knowledge as well.

Only Luke sets the birth and ministry of Christ in the wider context of the Roman Empire. Considerable historical and chronological data are used in his account. He is conscious of the impact of Christ’s teaching in the whole of the civilized world. He realizes the gospel goes far beyond Palestinian borders.

The point is, here is a man uniquely equipped to write an account of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ to one in high office. Luke understands the Graeco-Roman world. He possesses literary gifts and historical awareness. He has professional experience.

Luke’s Birth Accounts

The birth stories of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ are set in the days of Herod (Luke 1:5). The account begins with Zechariah, who is approached in the Temple by the archangel Gabriel while Zechariah is performing his priestly duties. Gabriel predicts the birth of John. Not unnaturally, Zechariah protests his and his wife’s advanced age. Nevertheless Elizabeth conceives (verse 24).

This crucial account follows: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” (verses 26-27).

God is director of this entire scenario. Gabriel was sent by the Creator. The archangel said to the betrothed virgin Mary, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (verse 30).

What is to happen to Mary as a result of God’s favor? “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (verse 31).

Tripartite Testimony

Notice the account carefully. Notice how Scripture affirms Mary’s virginity. In verse 27 Luke says that Mary was a virgin. In verse 34 Mary herself states she was a virgin. In verses 35 through 37 the archangel Gabriel affirms her virginity.

But what was Mary’s reaction to the angelic greeting? Just what you’d expect in a real life situation. Luke records that “she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be” (verse 29).

And when Gabriel tells her of the coming birth, her reaction is very human. “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” (verse 34). Mary was betrothed, but not yet living with a husband. She presents the natural difficulties. Then Gabriel proceeds to strengthen her faith. Notice how.

He focuses her attention on Elizabeth’s miraculous experience. “And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible” (verses 36-37).

A Miracle-working God

Such is the crux of the whole matter. God is a miracle-working God. Miraculous biblical incidents are recorded from Genesis to Revelation. Of course, God did create natural law. But the Creator is superior to the created and can transcend natural law.

Birth is not normally possible after menopause. It occurred twice in biblical history. The first occurrence involved the patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah. Again the reaction was typically human. Abraham said: “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Gen. 17:17). Sarah said: “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” (Gen. 18:13).

Notice how God answered these questions. “Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son” (verse 14).

“Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Each must answer this question for himself or herself.

Must we reject miracles because they are not the norm in secular human experience? Notice the wisdom of Winston Churchill: “The idea that nothing is true except what we comprehend is silly, and that ideas which our minds cannot reconcile are mutually destructive, sillier still” (My Early Life, page 126, 1930, MacMillan & Co.).

Which Is the Greater Miracle?

It is foolish to view the virgin birth in isolation. The virgin birth is not inherently less plausible than the physical resurrection of Jesus.

The virgin birth is no harder for God than resurrecting Jesus Christ — and certainly no harder than creating the first man from the dust of the ground — or fashioning Eve from Adam’s rib. Which miracle is harder for God?

Let’s put it another way. God created the heavens and the earth “out of things which do not appear” (Heb. 11:3). Visible matter is therefore not eternal in nature. God created Adam out of dust, without any father or mother. God created Eve out of a rib, without any father or mother. Was it then impossible for God to be the Father of Jesus without benefit of a human father? Which is the greater miracle?

But what was the archangel Gabriel telling Mary? Simply this. If God could make it possible for Elizabeth and Zechariah to have a son John in their old age, Mary could bear a child as a virgin. “For with God nothing will be impossible.”

Questions on the Virgin Birth

Why does John Mark, the writer of the gospel of Mark, fail to report a virgin birth?

Mark is the briefest of the four gospels. He simply omits the first 30 years of Jesus’ life — beginning his gospel with Jesus’ ministry. Says Mark 1:1: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (Revised Standard Version throughout). Even here a virgin birth is inferred.

What about the silence of the apostle Paul?

Paul’s epistles were all what theologians term “occasional” letters. That is, they were written to either inform or correct a specific congregation or an individual because of problems that arose during the course of his apostolic duties. None is a catalog of Christian doctrine.

Certainly nothing in Paul’s epistles contradicts a virgin birth. Notice Galatians 4:4: “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman…. ” At the outset of every one of Paul’s 14 letters, there is a reference to the Father-Son relationship in the God family. Note an excerpt from the salutation in II Corinthians 1:3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Also in Colossians 1:3: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Draw your own conclusions.

What about Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah 7:14 in the Old Testament? Is not the word virgin a mistranslation? Does not the Hebrew word almah mean “young woman”?

The Hebrew word almah can be translated “young woman,” “girl” or “maiden,” as well as “virgin.” As The New Bible Commentary Revised puts it: “It presumes rather than states virginity” (page 596). Almah is used to describe Rebekah as a “young woman” before her marriage to Isaac (Gen. 24:43). She was a virgin (verse 16).

Almah is never used to describe a married woman. Says The New Bible Dictionary: “In using the word alma, however, Isaiah employs the one word which is never applied (either in the Bible or in other Near Eastern sources) to anyone but an unmarried woman” (page 557).

This is not true of btula — the other term that may be translated “virgin.” Continues The New Bible Dictionary, “The word btula may designate a virgin, but when it does the explanatory phrase ‘and a man had not known her’ is often added… the word btula may also indicate a married woman.”

Moses uses both Hebrew words to describe the virgin Rebekah (see Genesis 24:16, 43). But why did Isaiah use almah to describe the one who would bear Immanuel (meaning “God with us”)? Simply stated, the prophet had to choose one of the two terms. Neither always means virgin. There is no precise word in Hebrew that always means virgin. Since almah never means a young married woman, one living with a husband, it is the better term for Isaiah 7:14.

It is interesting to note that the Septuagint — the most important Greek translation of the Old Testament — translates the Hebrew word almah (Isa. 7:14) into the Greek parthenos. This particular Greek word always means “virgin.” This was the judgment of some 70 Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek about 250 B.C.

All that aside, remember that here the Greek New Testament interprets the Hebrew. The angel explained to Joseph: ” ‘Do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit… “All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matt. 1:20-23).

Just before his ascension, Christ told his apostles: ” ‘These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets [including Isaiah] and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45). That last sentence is the key. The apostles — including Matthew — received an inspired understanding of the correct sense of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Many times the Hebrew prophets did not fully comprehend the exact nature of what they were writing (Dan. 12:8-9).

Matthew was given inspired understanding of many Hebrew scriptures concerning Jesus Christ. Isaiah 7:14 was just one.

Matthew’s genealogy begins with the genealogy of Joseph. What is the point of a genealogy of a stepfather?

This genealogy shows something vital about Jesus — as well as about his legal father. Matthew 1:1 simply states: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

King David was founder of the Jewish royal family. Matthew’s genealogy follows the Davidic royal line to Jesus’ legal father. Here are Jesus’ regal credentials.

Why do you think King Herod slaughtered all the male children in Bethlehem age 2 and under (Matt. 2:16)? Herod thought Jesus, as heir to David’s throne, might usurp his kingdom.

It was left to Luke to explain the actual Davidic bloodline through Jesus’ mother Mary.

Source: The Plain Truth, 1985

September 28, 2009

The Day of Atonement and Your Future

Scene one: A young woman walks through a semitropical garden filled with beautiful trees loaded with luscious fruit. Everything looks so good — so right.  But is it?

Suddenly she is confronted by a talking serpent who asks about God’s commands. Subtly, the serpent reasons with her until she decides to eat the fruit forbidden her by her Creator. Her husband then follows her example of disobedience.

From that time forward, mankind continues to be subject to Satan’s influence. Consequently, all humans sin and fall short of God’s glory.

Scene two: A young man, once strong and virile, is nailed to a stake. Blood oozes from deep, gaping lacerations in His body, wounds inflicted by a savage beating. Tormentors surround Him, arrogantly jeering, “He can save others, but not Himself!”

But the man’s mind is not on revenge; it is on the ultimate purpose of His suffering, which is to provide the sacrifice necessary for mankind’s salvation.

Finally, after many hours of suffering, death comes suddenly. Three days later He is resurrected. He rejoins His Father, where He serves as High Priest and soon-coming King for all humanity.

Scene three: The earth has been devastated. Plant and aquatic life are almost nonexistent. The human population has been reduced to a small fraction of its former size by the terrifying events of the Great Tribulation and the Day of the Lord.

Everywhere there is destruction, but there is also hope. Jesus Christ has intervened in world affairs. One obstacle remains — the presence of Satan the devil, mankind’s enemy for 6,000 years.

To eliminate this threat to global peace, an angel is sent to bind Satan. Satan is taken to a place of restraint where he is prohibited from influencing mankind for a thousand years.

Is there a relationship between these scenes? The answer is yes. There is a profound relationship that can be understood by studying the meaning of one of God’s annual festivals — the Day of Atonement.

This Day is commanded

Most professing Christians don’t even know that this Festival of God exists. Many who have heard of it think that it is no longer to be kept. But what does God say?

“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the Lord. And you shall do no work on that same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God…. You shall do no manner of work; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings’ ” (Lev. 23:26-28, 31).

This year the Day of Atonement falls on September 28. Some will reason that this command ceased to be in force after Christ’s crucifixion. Such reasoning is false! Jesus Christ did not come to nail God’s annual Holy Days to the cross (Matt. 5:17-18) .

The fact is that God’s festivals have only begun to be fulfilled. These days picture aspects of God’s plan of salvation (Col. 2:16-17), and must be observed by true Christians.

But what about the ritualistic laws that the Old Testament commanded with festival observance? Are they to be kept, or have they been fulfilled?

The purpose of the physical rituals God gave to ancient Israel was to remind the people of the need for the payment of their sins. The various sacrifices pointed ahead to the sacrifice of One who would come later in history as Savior of all mankind.

So the ritualistic laws were fulfilled by the events leading to and including Christ’s own sacrificial death. Therefore they need not be kept today, nor can they be, as there is no Aaronic priesthood to perform these physical duties (Heb. 9:8-10, 10:1-4, 9-12).

The ritualistic laws are no longer performed, but their various aspects still have symbolic meaning. For each festival, we seek to understand all the festival’s meanings, as revealed in the Bible, and as they relate to salvation.

The Tabernacle and the priesthood

Before we proceed with a study of these rituals and symbols, it is necessary for us to understand some things about the Tabernacle and the priesthood.

After making the covenant agreement with Israel, God told the nation to build a Tabernacle, which is a physical type of God’s habitation in heaven (Ex. 25-27, 30, Heb. 9:23-24). The Tabernacle consisted of an enclosed courtyard, containing an altar for animal sacrifices and a tent.

The tent was divided into two sections by a veil. The section behind the veil was called the “Most Holy” place or “Holiest of All.” The other section was the “holy place” (Ex. 26:33, Heb. 9:3). The most holy place represented God’s throne. Located here was the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the Ten Commandments and other items (Deut. 10:2, 31:26, Ex. 16:33-34, Num. 17:1-10). The lid of the Ark was called the mercy seat; this was where God manifested Himself (Ex. 25:22).

The job of high priest was given to Aaron; his sons served as priests. As time passed, other of his descendants held these positions. As priests, they performed various animal sacrifices and ceremonies on behalf of Israel.

Rituals for Aaron

On the Day of Atonement, special animal sacrifices and ceremonies were conducted. These are explained in Leviticus 16.

This was the only day when Aaron was allowed to enter the most holy place. Before doing this, he had to bathe and dress himself in his priestly garments (Lev. 16:4). Then he had to offer on the altar a bullock as a sin offering for himself.

Once this was completed, he took a censer, a vessel that held burning coals, from the altar and entered the most holy place. He then took incense, an aromatic compound, and placed it on the burning coals. Next he sprinkled blood from the bullock on the mercy seat, which represented God’s throne (verses 11-14).

Why did Aaron do these things? What did they picture? Aaron had to first make atonement for himself as a sinning human before God. The word atonement means “to make at one with.”

Washing himself pictured having his conscience changed to accept God’s standard of righteousness (Heb. 10:22). His linen coat symbolized living a righteous life (Rev. 19:8). The incense pictured prayers ascending to God (Ps. 141:2, Rev. 5:8). The blood represented the way sins are forgiven (Heb. 9:13-14, Rom. 3:25).

Aaron, the high priest, was a type of Jesus Christ, who is now our High Priest (Heb. 3:1). By living a sinless life, Jesus qualified to offer Himself as a sin sacrifice for all humanity through His crucifixion.

After Jesus’ death, the veil in the Temple (the Temple had replaced the Tabernacle) was torn in two from top to bottom (Matt. 27:50-51). The torn veil represented the fact that we are now allowed direct contact with God the Father through prayer (Heb. 10:19-22, John 16:23).

This contact is something that those living before Christ’s resurrection did not have; their access was limited to the Word of God, the God of the Old Testament who became Jesus Christ.

The two goats

Now that Aaron had completed sacrifices for himself, what happened next?

“The two goats he must place in front of the Eternal at the entrance to the Trysting tent [Tabernacle]; Aaron shall cast lots over the goats, one lot for the Eternal and the other for Azazel the demon; the goat that falls by lot to the Eternal shall be brought forward and offered as a sin-offering, but the goat that falls by lot to Azazel shall be set free in presence of the Eternal, that Aaron may perform expiatory rites over it and send it away for Azazel into the desert” (Lev. 16:7-10, Moffatt).

Whom did this slain goat, whose blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat and the altar for the sins of the people (Lev. 16:15-19), represent? The answer is Christ, who was slain and whose blood was shed for the forgiveness of our sins (Heb. 9:12, 22-26).

But Christ’s death has not completed the job of making atonement for the sins of humanity. Why? Because Satan, the god of this world, has blinded the minds of most people. Consequently, mankind rejects the true Gospel, which includes accepting the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and living a righteous life (II Cor. 4:3-4, Rev. 12:9).

So how will the job of atonement be completed? How will mankind be made at one with God?

The answer is revealed through the symbolism of the live goat — the azazel, in Hebrew.

Says The Comprehensive Commentary: “[According to] the oldest opinions of the Hebrews and Christians … Azazel is the name of the Devil … the word signified the goat which went away.” The Azazel was the goat that was sent into the wilderness.

This Azazel is sometimes referred to as the “escape goat” or “scapegoat.” But these terms make the meaning unclear. Scapegoat has come to mean “one who bears blame or guilt for others.” This is not the case with Satan. He is guilty of influencing mankind into disobeying God (Eph. 2:2). And he will be punished for it — Satan will bear his own guilt! He will not be allowed to escape.

Symbolism,

The live goat was brought before Aaron, who, as we have seen, is a type of Jesus Christ, our High Priest. Aaron laid hands on this goat, confessing upon it the people’s sins. Then it was led by another individual into the wilderness where it was released (Lev. 16:20-22).

How is this symbolism going to be fulfilled? Jesus is coming to this earth again, this time to rule. He will order Satan bound and taken to a place of restraint for a thousand years (Rev. 20:1-3).

The world will then become free of Satan’s influence and responsive to God’s way of life; man’s sins will be laid to Satan’s charge. The change will be remarkable. Humanity as a whole will accept the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and live according to God’s law (Isa. 11:9). Finally, there will be universal peace, joy and happiness (Jer. 31:12-14).

What about fasting?

In addition to the symbolism of the sacrifices, there is another aspect of this Festival that we must consider. Notice Leviticus 16:29:

“This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether a native of your own country or a stranger who sojourns among you.”

What does it mean “afflict your soul”? The word afflict (Hebrew anah) is translated “humble” in Psalm 35:13, where David said, “I humbled myself with fasting.” So afflicting oneself means to fast.

Biblical examples show that fasting means to go without food and water (Deut. 9:9, 18, Esther 4:16, Acts 9:8-9). This is the only day when we are commanded to fast. It is so important that in the New Testament we see this Festival referred to as “the Fast” (Acts 27:9).

The purpose of fasting is to humble ourselves, to see our insignificance and realize our need for and utter dependence on God (Jas. 4:9-10). God does not hold us guiltless for the sins that Satan influences us to commit. We bear a responsibility for yielding to Satan’s temptations.

God wants you to examine yourself so you will recognize your shortcomings and overcome them. These are the conditions of a proper fast that will cause God to intervene on your behalf.

Keep this Festival

The Day of Atonement, then, is a solemn, serious occasion, and yet, because of what it pictures, this Festival is a tremendously positive and encouraging day.

Besides revealing vital understanding about God’s plan of salvation, the Day of Atonement can bring you much closer to God, if you obey God’s command to observe this day.

Don’t deny yourself this relationship with God. Decide now to keep the Day of Atonement!

Source: The Good News, August 1983

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