At the heart of the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke is the virgin birth of Jesus. Because that requires a miracle, most of the discussion surrounding the virgin birth historically has been over the question “Is the Biblical account of the virgin birth true?” Genuine believers have no objection to the virgin birth because if you can’t believe in miracles, Christianity is just not a good fit for you. At the center of our faith is the resurrection of Christ and that’s a miracle if there ever was one. It’s too bad that the discussion about whether the virgin birth is plausible has obscured what to me is a more interesting question. That is—why in the plan of God was it important for Jesus to be born out of scandal? There’s no other word for the circumstances surrounding his birth. A young girl, betrothed to a man—and legally bound to him even before the ceremony, becomes pregnant, but not by him. Mary’s betrothed, Joseph, was a man who, unwilling to bring shame and perhaps even the death penalty to Mary, agrees to keep it quiet and divorce her discreetly. We know the couple is spared this because God sends an angel who appears to Joseph and explains that Mary had not sinned, but was with child by the Holy Spirit.
The gospel writers don’t tell us what, if any public outcry was produced by this teenage girl pregnant out of wedlock, but even if this was known only by the closest friends and families of the couple, it was a scandal. This pregnancy clearly violated the accepted sequence of events…marriage before pregnancy—and that made it a scandal. Think about Mary and Joseph in the years to come when someone would ask them how old Jesus was and followed up with “How long have you been married?” There would an awkward pause as Mary and Joseph exchange knowing looks--because their son Jesus was older than their marriage. Whether this was front page news in Palestine or not is not the point. The point is—why did a sovereign God who orchestrates all these details, cause it to happen this way?
Think about it. God could have sent an angel to Joseph and Mary on their wedding night and told them to remain celibate for the next nine months because God by the Holy Spirit would bring about a child in Mary’s womb. You may say, “Yes, but if that would have happened, then Jesus would have been born four months later and they would not have been in Bethlehem for the census.” True, but that’s hardly insurmountable for a God who is writing the script for all these events. He could have bumped the census back four months. You could also argue—as a friend of mine did, that “the delay between the pregnancy and the marriage reinforced the supernatural element. If God would have caused Mary to conceive on the wedding night, there would be no concrete indication of a virgin birth.” That’s a very good answer because the delay we read about in the gospels between Mary’s pregnancy and the marriage disqualifies Joseph as the father—making it easier for the gospel writers to argue for the virgin birth. But…Joseph could have been taken out of the picture some other way. On the way to the bridal chamber, he could have gone into a mysterious coma for four months. You may object. “Yes, but that’s a pretty far-fetched story line.” I’m hard pressed to reject any possible story line options on the basis of them being far-fetched, when the Biblical account includes angels dropping in and speaking to people. The story is already far-fetched. That’s why it takes faith to believe it. No, it seems clear that for some other reason(s) God—who arranged these events just as he wanted them to play out--wanted Mary pregnant before marriage to Joseph. The question is--Why?
I think we find the answer when we examine some of the other details surrounding the birth of Jesus and notice one common purpose they share. For instance, the humble setting of Jesus’ birth—why did Jesus have to be born in a cave and placed in a manger? Why not a palace—he was born a king? One answer is because—the setting for his birth is simply consistent with the setting of his life. It would have been wholly inconsistent for Jesus to have been born in a palace when, during his ministry “the son of man had no place to lay his head.” The humble setting of his birth points to his future way of life. Likewise, why did Jesus have to be born into the home of outwardly unimpressive people? There is nothing remarkable about Joseph and Mary in the world’s eyes. Why wasn’t the Savior born into the family of the high priest—he was the great high preist? Again, Jesus’ adult life holds the key. Why would Jesus be born to a high priest when, for his disciples, he would choose men who were from the common people. The only disciple with any social status was Judas Iscariot—and betrayed Jesus. Why would Jesus be of noble birth when only a very few of his future followers throughout history would be highly born? Again, the details surrounding his birth foreshadow his ministry.
Then there’s Simeon and Anna, these two elderly folks Joseph and Mary meet at Jesus’ dedication in the temple. Why did God choose to reveal the most specific information about Jesus’ mission to these people—even more explicit than what Mary and Joseph had been told? Simeon said Jesus would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles…” Anna was the one who said to Mary referencing Jesus’ passion, “And a sword will pierce your heart as well.” In response to what they said, Mary and Joseph “marveled about what was said about him.” This was new information they had not heard. Why, of all the people in Israel who were waiting for the messiah, does God reveal these glorious truths to only these two people? Because in the future ministry of Christ, of the tens of thousands of people who would hear his teaching, only a small remnant of believers persevere to the end. The Biblical pattern especially in the Old Testament is that God has only a small remnant of people who get it, while most around them are perishing. These two people in the temple point toward the believing remnant who would follow Jesus when nearly all the other Jews remained blind about him.
Think about the angels at Jesus’ birth. The presence of angels are like bookends on either end of his earthly life and ministry. Although we see them occasionally in the ministry of Jesus, we see them declaring truth only at his birth and resurrection. They announce his birth—his entrance into this world from heaven, and they also announce his re-entrance into this world from death at his resurrection. There’s a beautiful symmetry there as the birth angels point to the resurrection angels This pattern of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth pointing to future circumstances in Jesus’ life, enable us to see why it was necessary for Jesus to be born in scandal. Think about it--when we look at the future life and ministry of Jesus it is has a very scandalous character as far as the culture is concerned. It’s not only appropriate that he be born in scandal, based on the pattern we’ve seen, his life absolutely requires it. Let’s look at two scandalous elements of Jesus’ ministry.
First, Jesus’ ministry was scandalous with respect to the established religious norms and leaders in Israel. I don’t know the Arabic word for “scandalous,” but the Jewish religious leaders doubtless applied it to Jesus. Think with me about a few examples of the scandalous character of Jesus’ ministry. First, Jesus consistently opposed and confronted the Jewish religious establishment. He called them “whitewashed tombs—looking good on the outside, but full of dead men’s bones on the inside.” He also called them “blind guides,” who tried to lead others on the path to righteousness, but could not even see it themselves. His favorite term of derision for them was “hypocrites” which he repeatedly called them to their faces. Near the end of his ministry, he pronounces seven curses on them and tells his own followers to beware of their leaven—that is, beware of the way they and the other religious leaders defile God’s people. Finally, when they were foolish enough to engage him in public debate, Jesus consistently humiliated them in front of their people. Jesus’ ministry was scandalous with respect to the prevailing Jewish religious leadership.
A second example of the scandal-ridden character of Jesus’ ministry: Jesus regularly broke the traditions and man-made rules the first-century Jews had added to the Law. He healed and did other miracles on the Sabbath which infuriated these religious leaders. He refused to practice their complicated and ridiculous system of swearing by the temple or the gold in the temple or any of that. He let his yes be yes and his no be no. When Jesus saw the currency exchangers in the temple, he saw it as defilement of the holy and he used a whip to drive out the offenders. He hadn’t attended the Hebrew Institute of Religious Studies. He completely lacked the traditional academic credentials for a rabbi. Third, Jesus hung out with all the wrong kinds of people. Jesus was regularly seen in the company of tax collectors. He even had a former tax collector as a disciple. Tax collectors were Jews who collected taxes for the Roman Empire and were so hated in first century Israel that they were regularly listed with prostitutes as the lowest forms of life. Jesus also spent time with prostitutes—speaking and ministering to them. He even had his feet washed by one. Fourth: He was from Nazareth in Galilee—This was not a good neighborhood and certainly no place for a teacher of the Law to claim as his hometown. Nazareth is not even mentioned in the Old Testament and no one in Israel’s history of any renown came from Galilee. When Nathaniel heard that the Messiah was a “Jesus of Nazareth” his first response was “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus just didn’t measure up in any of these areas and that made him a scandal to many.
Another way Jesus was a scandal to the religious establishment was--He regularly called God his Father and led his disciples to call Yahweh, “Father.” In the Old Testament, which is 75% of the Bible, there are only a handful of times where someone explicitly refers to God as “Father” and when that designation is used for God, it is almost always as the Father of the nation of Israel, not the Father of an individual—that reference to God as a personal Father was virtually un-heard of before Jesus. Yet, “Father” was Jesus’ favorite designation for God and he taught his followers to pray to him as “Father.” This is one of the largest points of discontinuity between the Old and New Testament. God is so often referenced as Father by Jesus that J.I. Packer writes, “The Christian name for God is Father.” In calling Jesus, “Father,” he was clearly making himself equal with God and this was scandalous. The religious leaders accused him of blasphemy for this. Finally, Jesus was a scandal because He radically reinterpreted the popular understanding of many Jewish laws and moral teachings. In some cases, he was much more strict in his interpretation—scandalously so. He taught that sexual lust was really adultery of the heart. Hating someone is akin to murdering them. He was uniquely conservative in his interpretation of Old Testament divorce laws, so much so that his own disciples wondered why anyone would marry if he was right. He lived in an age where personal retaliation was justified under the “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” verse. But Jesus resurrected the long forgotten Old Testament command to do good to your enemies—bless those who hate you. That wasn’t part of the religious dialogue. There are doubtless more ways in which Jesus’ ministry was scandalous in the eyes of the religious establishment, but you get the point.
The second and by far the most outrageous of all of the scandals of Jesus was: The scandal of his death, or specifically—how he died. According to Old Testament law, if you hung someone on a tree, that was a sure sign that the dead person was accursed, under God’s wrath and condemnation. Because of that, the Jews were very careful to hang on a tree only a person whose sin was so abominable that in their minds, he is certainly under God’s eternal wrath. Yet knowing that, God ordained that the Romans execute Jesus by hanging him on a tree—a wooden cross. That meant that the Jews would have assumed that this execution was a pronouncement by God that Jesus—this One who claimed to be the Messiah, was in truth under God’s curse, his fiery wrath. Paul says in First Corinthians 1:23, “23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,” Christ crucified was a “stumbling block” to the Jews. It’s no coincidence that the word in the original for “stumbling block” is scandalon from which we get our word, “scandal.” Some translations even translate it, “Christ crucified, a scandal to the Jews…” This is THE great scandal of Jesus’ life—the one to which all the other scandals—from his alleged illegitimate birth and on down. Those scandals simply foreshadow—point to this ultimate scandal of Jesus being accursed by God in his death.
But that just puts the question back one level which is--why did Jesus’ death need to be scandalous? The simple answer is—it had to be scandalous because he died to address the greatest scandal to hit this planet—up to that point--the mother of all scandals…sin. We may not think of sin as a scandal—they’re mistakes, poor choices, but the Bible consistently describes sin in terms that equate it with scandal. Think about it from God’s perspective. God, out of his great love and desire to share himself and his glory with others, creates a universe and within that universe, our world. He fills it with oceans, rivers, lakes, streams and wildlife of every variety—all unique in their own way and all in some way displaying his glory. The animals are gentle and approachable—the lion and the lamb lie down together. The ground produces food without any work—it just springs up from the ground to be harvested. The moon and stars he provides as lights for the night sky. Finally, God creates two beings with whom he shares his very image, Adam and Eve--humans. The angels didn’t get his image—only humanity bears this sacred mark. He gives Adam a wife with whom he never argues or disagrees and he places them in the most lush, beautiful garden imaginable—no allergies, thorns and if there were mosquitoes—they didn’t drink blood. He gives these two humans authority over all the world—all things will perfectly conform to their will.
For all this, he asks nothing from them and they have done nothing to earn or deserve it—an absolute free gift. In response to this immeasurable grace, they worshipped him with perfect sincerity—they lived for him—to please him—just as he had designed into their DNA. God made one and only one request of them. In response to this all this overwhelming grace, goodness and generosity, he told them “Of all the trees in the garden there is one that you should never eat its fruit.” They were never to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Once they began to inhabit and rule this planet, it’s an astonishingly short period of time before a serpent shows up. They have no recorded history, no track record at all with this serpent. And he proceeds to tell them that God--who had freely given them immeasurable joy and wealth and asked nothing in return—was in fact an insecure, petty liar. He told them the reason God didn’t want them to eat of this tree was because if they did, they would be like him—and in God’s deep-rooted insecurity, he would never want that. And so, even though God had literally given them the world—the serpent slanders God’s character and tells this couple that God, who, out of his love for them had given them everything, was in fact keeping something from them that would be very good from them—because he selfishly coveted his unique status. And they listened to this serpent as he slandered their infinitely generous Creator. They didn’t go to God to ask him about this charge leveled by the snake. And in the scandal of all scandals up to the cross, they chose to believe the serpent’s word and disobey God’s one command for them. And their motive for disobedience was--they wanted to possess what they foolishly believed would make God jealous of them-to be like him. Think about how scandalously wicked this was. On one side, you have God who gifted to Adam and Eve life—an existence. He also threw in a planet and all that goes with it—animals, trees, mountains, oceans—stars to wonder at. He gave them each other and the chance to procreate without pain of childbirth. He gave them work that would be very fulfilling but never raised a sweat. He had given absolutely unique authority—his authority to rule his planet. He had freely, graciously given them all things and had done nothing—not one thing-- to cause them to question his character.
And on the other side, you have a completely unknown quantity--a talking serpent who had given them nothing; who could give them nothing and who presented nothing to prove his credibility. He makes an unsubstantiated charge against God with absolutely no evidence, (nor was he asked for any) to support his claim. His testimony about God ran utterly contradictory and was wholly inconsistent with everything God had done for t hem and they had experienced from him. And in the greatest scandal in Old Testament history—they choose to believe the outrageous claims of the serpent. They ate the fruit and betrayed the God who made them, breaking the one, solitary rule he had laid down for them. Think for a moment about that—let that sink in. This is betrayal of the highest possible order!
What’s even more sobering is that we continue Adam’s scandalous behavior and attitude toward God because we not only inherited his heart, lungs and eyes; we also inherited his sinful nature that betrays the God who made us by rebelliously choosing to live the way we want to live with only an occasional hat-tip to God. In response to this sin, he places a curse on them and all the earth that would make life very difficult and bring on humanity untold affliction, finally resulting in our physical deaths. God could have left it right there and been perfectly justified in doing so—with a fallen, sinful planet populated by suffering and dying people who continually betray him and in their independence, rebel against his authority as Creator.
But he didn’t. Instead, he begins to implement a plan conceived before creation that would break the curse of sin and redeem his fallen creation—including his rebellious race of humans. In order to legally undo what Adam had spoiled through his sin, God must break the curse of sin through a human because the original curse was placed on a man, Adam. So when the time was right, God sent another man, but this one did not have Adam’s sin nature that we too share. So God did something so scandalous that no one would have ever conceived of it if it weren’t recorded in the pages of Scripture. He sent a baby boy, born of a virgin, because instead having a fallen human for a father, this baby would be conceived by the Holy Spirit and therefore not inherit Adam’s sinful nature.
But, how would he break the curse? First, by living a perfect life—no sin—defeating all the serpents’ attempts to bring him into sin, thus showing the supremacy of God over evil. But something more was required and this is where the heart of God’s greatest scandal is revealed. He would break the curse of sin by allowing fallen humans, soaked with sin, to hang his Son—God in human form--his co-equal, his co-Creator on a tree and in so doing--place him under his, the Father’s curse. Though unlike Adam, Jesus had done nothing to deserve the curse. He placed the curse of my sin on Jesus and then punished his perfect Son in my place and in the place of all those who would trust him. Then, as Jesus wore my sin, his Father poured out his blazing anger, fury and wrath upon his Son for the curse—the curse I had borne through my rebellion. The scandal is even more astonishing because once his perfect Son was cursed with my sin on that tree—placed on him, God then took the record of Christ’s perfect life—the righteousness of his perfect Son and imputed that to me. He placed my sin, shame and curse on his Son who was punished for it. And I received forgiveness of all my betrayal—of all my rebellion and a right standing before a holy God--having done nothing to deserve it.
There’s only one requirement to receive this gift which we are all in need of. You must turn from your sin and turn in faith to Jesus. When a person sees their sinful rebellion against God—when they see how far they are from the perfection that God requires, the only way to escape God’s judgment is to run to the cross and leave your curse on Jesus—receive his forgiveness and his perfect record which alone satisfy a holy Judge. An amazing thing happens at this point as this scandalous death of Christ works its miracle in the life of a sinner. First, you are given a new heart so that you increasingly want to live for Jesus and not yourself. Second, you are adopted by God into his family. The Judge becomes your heavenly Father. If you haven’t done that, do it tonight. Otherwise, the scandal of your sin will bring the just judgment you deserve. As we think about the scandal of Jesus’ birth, let us never forget that that scandal only pointed to the great scandal of God becoming man so that he could save rebels like you and me.
As we conclude, for those of us who follow Jesus, the scandalous nature of Jesus’ ministry seems to beg a question of the church. “Why, is it that many of the followers of this Messiah--who was such a non-conformist scandalizer, seem so unwilling to go against the grain of this world, but are instead often more concerned about “blending in” with it” Doesn’t it seem ironic that the Head of the church would be a flashing light of non-conformity to a superficial culture, but members of his North American church often seem to be obsessed with not making waves? If the church were a color, it would surely be beige. If it was an ice cream flavor, sugar-free vanilla. Jesus spent his entire ministry doing things that cut against the grain of a fallen, self-deceived popular culture, but his church today seems unwilling to swim against the current of popular culture. Don’t misunderstand; Jesus was never scandalous just to be scandalous and parts of the church are guilty of that. He simply lived in a fallen culture as someone whose home address was heaven and as such, lived like an alien here—he wasn’t like the people of this world. If you are a genuine believer, where is your home address? Does the way you live indicate that your home is in the alien territory of heaven, where the way of life is so different than this world? Or do your values, priorities and agendas force people to conclude that your home is right here in this world? May God give us the grace to remember and embrace the scandal of Jesus Christ for his glory and our joy.
Page last modified on 1/8/2012
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