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B. Nathaniel Sullivan
A Christmas Study: “How Can This Be?” (update)
[Today] you will hear people say, “The early Christians believed that Christ was the son of a virgin, but we know that this is a scientific impossibility.” Such people seem to have an idea that belief in miracles arose at a period when men were so ignorant of the cause of nature that they did not perceive a miracle to be contrary to it. A moment’s thought shows this to be nonsense: and the story of the Virgin Birth is a particularly striking example. When St. Joseph discovered that his fiancée was going to have a baby, he not unnaturally decided to repudiate her. Why? Because he knew just as well as any modern gynecologist that in the ordinary course of nature women do not have babies unless they have lain with men. No doubt the modern gynecologist knows several things about birth and begetting which St. Joseph did not know. But those things do not concern the main point—that a virgin birth is contrary to the course of nature. And St. Joseph obviously knew that.
Of course, the “punch line” of this ad is the Father’s concluding exclamation, “It’s a miracle!” Especially today, nearly 40 years later, the ad reminds us of a host of now commonplace occurrences that would have been considered miraculous centuries ago, a hundred years ago, and even just a few decades ago. Indeed, technology has brought us to a world where amazing things happen. For example, we have instant messaging through email, cell phones, and video platforms like Skype. And surely both Brother Dominic and the Father would consider it miraculous that many people have copy machines, in the form of printers, in their own homes. While to some extent these innovations may seem miraculous even to us, we know there are scientific explanations for them.
Some things have happened in history, however, that science simply can’t explain. These events could not have occurred unless God intervened. We see this over and over in the Christmas story, which is rich with evidence of God’s work even before Jesus was conceived in Mary’s body. If we could ask Zechariah and Elizabeth (see Luke 1:5-25,57-80), they doubtless would confirm God’s intervention—but let’s learn from Mary, the mother of Jesus herself. She was directly involved in one of the biggest miracles ever to have happened!
When Mary received a visit from Gabriel and learned that she would give birth to God’s Son, she naturally had a question. “Mary asked the angel, ‘How can this be, since I have not been intimate with a man?’” (Luke 1:34). It was a great question! Gabriel “replied to her: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy One to be born will be called the Son of God’” (v. 35).
The mystery of the incarnation—God’s becoming a man without ceasing to be God—must ultimately be accepted by faith, for it can never be fully understood by human minds. Yet Gabriel gave Mary—and he gives us—a glimpse of some of the things that were involved in Jesus’ conception.
- The baby would be conceived and would begin to grow in Mary’s womb as a result of the Holy Spirit’s activity and God’s power. This does not mean Jesus’ life would begin in Mary’s womb. No, this wasn’t the case at all, for Jesus has existed from eternity past. (Note what John the Baptist, who was born at least several months before Jesus, said when He saw Jesus at the onset of His—Jesus’—ministry: “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the One I told you about: ‘After me comes a man who has surpassed me, because He existed before me’” [John 1:30]). Instead of beginning to exist at the point of His conception, Jesus would, to put it rather primitively, relocate or move into a human body, tiny though it was when the conception occurred.
- “The power of the Most High will overshadow you,” Gabriel told Mary (Luke 1:35). The idea of overshadowing or enveloping in a shadow has caused many to recall manifestations of God’s presence in the Old Testament when the Israelites were led by God through the wilderness after being freed from bondage in Egypt (see 25:22; 40:34-38; also see Gen. 1:2; 1 Kings 8:10-11; Isa. 60:2; Ezek. 1:28; Matt. 17:5; Luke 2:9; Heb. 9:5). While it probably is appropriate to make this connection, we must acknowledge that when God overshadowed Mary, He performed a miracle of creation and transcendence that was unparalleled in all of history.
- “Therefore,” Gabriel said, “the holy One to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). The birth that would result would not come because of Joseph’s actions or because of any human influence whatsoever. This was God’s doing, and the One to be born would be God’s own Son.
We are reminded here of John’s inspired words in John 1:12-13: To all who welcomed Jesus into their lives, “He gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in His name, who were born, [and here we see a truth that parallels Jesus’ conception and birth] not of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God.” The miraculous conception that took place in Mary’s body, as unique as it was (a once-in-history occurrence), parallels the genesis of spiritual life in otherwise spiritually dead people today! As Ravi Zacharias has noted, “Jesus Christ did not come into this world to make bad people good. He came to make dead people live.”1
Mary knew that within herself she had no power to generate divine life, so of course such a thing could happen only as a result of God’s power. Mary simply would be a willing participant in the process. So it is with us when we exercise faith in Jesus to forgive us of our sins. Through God’s power, we become His children—not divine ourselves, but born to new life by divine power. These are authentic miracles!
Copyright © 2015 B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.
Explore various aspects of the first Christmas with a new Word Foundations feature: Breaking Bread. Visit http://www.wordfoundations.com/breaking-bread-the-birth-of-jesus/
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations in this article are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Holman CSB®, and HCSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.
1Ravi Zacharias, quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 219.