Posts tagged ‘Virgin Birth’

All You Need Is the Sermon on the Mount

Sermon on the Mount

In what has become a kind of tradition for him, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published an op-ed piece a couple of days before Christmas with this question: “Am I a Christian?”  This time, he asked the question to Cardinal Joseph Tobin, but he has posed the same question to President Jimmy Carter and Pastor Timothy Keller in past columns.

Mr. Kristof is an admitted skeptic of many of the claims of Christianity.  He opens his conversation with Cardinal Tobin like this:

Merry Christmas! Let me start with respectful skepticism. I revere Jesus’ teachings, but I have trouble with the miracles – including, since this is Christmas, the virgin birth. In Jesus’ time people believed that Athena was born from Zeus’ head, so it seemed natural to accept a great man walking on water or multiplying loaves and fishes; in 2017, not so much. Can’t we take the Sermon on the Mount but leave the supernatural?

Mr. Kristof holds a view of Christianity that sees Jesus as a talented and even a uniquely enlightened teacher.  Believing that He was a worker of supernatural feats, however, is a bridge too far.  Mr. Kristof’s Christianity is one that would prefer to, in his own words, “take the Sermon on the Mount but leave the supernatural” behind.

Mr. Kristof, of course, is not the only one who stumps for this kind of Christianity.  President Obama, when he was making a case for same-sex unions back when he was campaigning for the presidency in 2008, stated:

If people find that controversial, then I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which I think is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an obscure passage in Romans.

Instead of pitting against the miracles of Christ against the Sermon on the Mount, as does Mr. Kristof, President Obama pits the letters of Paul against the Sermon on the Mount, but the net effect is the same:  if one wants a Christianity that is palatable, passable, and practical for the 21st century, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the place to go.

Really?

Surely Mr. Kristoff can’t be talking about the Sermon on the Mount.  He must have some other sermon in mind.  For in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says all sorts of things that are unmistakably contrary to our enlightened and modern sensibilities.

If Mr. Kristof finds a virgin birth impossible, what can he possibly find plausible about Jesus’ claim in the Sermon on the Mount to fulfill all of Scripture?

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  (Matthew 5:17)

It should be pointed out that Jesus’ claim to fulfill “the Prophets” would include a prophecy about a virgin who will give birth, as Matthew so aptly notes at the beginning of his Gospel:

An angel of the Lord appeared to [Joseph] in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call Him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). (Matthew 1:20-23)

To hold to what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount would be to hold to who Jesus claims to be: the perfect fulfillment of around 1,000-years-worth of ancient literature.  Is this really what Mr. Kristof believes?

Of course, Jesus says lots of other things in His Sermon on the Mount too, like:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  (Matthew 5:27-28)

And:

It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.  (Matthew 5:31-32)

And:

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  (Matthew 5:48)

And:

Seek first [God’s] kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)

And:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.  (Matthew 7:13-14)

Do people who want to take Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount while leaving behind other portions of the Scriptures take Jesus at His word in all these matters?

I have a suspicion that when people argue for the primacy of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, they are arguing for the primacy of a very abridged version of the sermon, which usually amounts to some nice thoughts about loving your enemies, except, of course, if they are our political enemies, along with some other nice thoughts about not judging others, except, of course, when someone holds a position we deem worthy of mockery.  It turns out that a Christianity that strips away the rest of the Scriptures in favor of the Sermon on the Mount only winds up stripping away the Sermon on the Mount itself.

So, allow me to make a suggestion.  If you think all of Christianity can be competently considered using Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, fine.  But then take the whole Sermon on the Mount seriously.  Believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of every jot and tittle of the Old Testament.  Decry lust and divorce.  Aim not just for respectable goodness, but for perfect righteousness.  Put God’s kingdom first in every decision. Learn to love all those who hate you in a way that you are willing even to sacrifice for them.  Guard against being judgmental, even of those you find intolerable.  See Jesus as your narrow road to salvation.

Live like that.

But be warned:  if you do live like that, you might just find yourself in agreement not only with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but with the rest of the Scriptures as well, which means that perhaps Jesus’ sermon was actually what a sermon was always meant to be:  not some stand-alone speech that can be divorced from everything around it, but a testimony to all of God’s truth as contained in the Scriptures.

Try as you might, to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously, you must take the rest of the Scriptures seriously.  And if you take the rest of the Scriptures seriously, you will take Jesus seriously, for the Scriptures testify to Him.  And if you take Jesus seriously, you may find out that He was not just another teacher, but One who has perfect authority over us, insight into us, and salvation for us.

Now, if you’re willing to believe all that about Jesus, which is what the Sermon on the Mount calls us to believe, is a virgin birth really all that difficult to fathom?

January 8, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

ABC Extra – “Jesus was born of a…”

When trying to understand a particularly puzzling or perplexing passage of Scripture, it is helpful to turn to other interpreters and study how they have interpreted the passage.  This is especially helpful in the case of Isaiah 7:14, a famous prophecy about the birth of Jesus: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call Him Immanuel.”  This passage became a source of heated debate and disagreement when the Revised Standard Version of 1952 famously translated, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign.  Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel.”  Traditionally, this verse has been taken as a prophecy of the miraculous conception of Christ as one who was born of a virgin girl named Mary: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18).  It was the Holy Spirit, Matthew says, who planted the Christ child in Mary’s womb.  Mary, therefore, was still a virgin when she had Jesus.  But the RSV changed the traditional translation of Isaiah 7:14 from “virgin” to “young woman.”  Why the change?

The crux of the debate centers on the Hebrew word for “virgin,” or, as the RSV translates, “young woman.”  The word is almah.  And although almah does generally refer to a young woman who is a virgin, there are limited instances where it may refer to a young woman not in a virginal state, the most famous being Proverbs 30:18-19: “There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden.”  The Hebrew word for “maiden” is almah.  In this instance, the word seems to be referring to a woman already married and, hence, no longer in a virginal state.  This is why the translators of the RSV opted for a more general translation of almah – “young woman” – rather than a more specific one – “virgin” – in Isaiah 7:14.  The difficulty with this translation, however, is that Christianity’s critics have quickly pounced on this translation to undermine the Christological implications of this prophecy.  Rather than foretelling the virgin birth of Christ, these critics maintain that this prophecy points only to events in the Isaiah’s own day.

This debate, then, leads us to this important question:  Which translation of almah is correct?  “Virgin” or “young woman”?  And make no mistake about it:  At stake here is far more than trifling lexical nuances.  At stake here is a prophecy which the gospel writer Matthew says is fulfilled finally and fully in Jesus Christ!  Indeed, Matthew cites this prophecy in his birth narrative:  “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means, ‘God with us’” (Matthew 1:22-23).  Did Matthew misquote, misunderstand, or, worse yet, purposefully misuse this passage from Isaiah 7:14 when he applied it to the virgin birth of Jesus?

It is here that it is helpful to turn to other interpreters and see how they have understood this particularly puzzling and perplexing passage of Scripture.  One of the oldest interpretations of this passage comes to us via an ancient translation of the Bible called the Septuagint.  The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Old Testament, commissioned in the third and second centuries as more and more Jews, after Alexander the Great undertook his project of radically Hellenizing the whole world, were no longer able to speak and understand Hebrew fluently.  This Septuagint was a way for the Jews to maintain their religious Scriptural heritage in a language they could read and understand.  And in Isaiah 7:14, the Hebrew word almah is translated as the Greek word parthenos.  And although there may some limited linguistic ambiguity in the meaning of the word almah, there is no such ambiguity in the word parthenos.  It means “virgin.”  Thus, ancient Jewish translators, living before the birth of Christ, interpreted this prophecy Messianically, referring to a miraculously virgin born Messiah.  And Matthew, in his account of Jesus’ birth, picks up on the Seputagintal translation of this prophecy and too uses the word parthenos.  Interestingly, later Jewish Greek translations of this verse from the second century AD translate almah as neanis, meaning “young woman,” no doubt in an attempt the mute the Christian interpretation of this passage.  But before the birth of Christ, the Jews were expecting nothing less than a miraculously born Messiah – a virgin born Messiah.

Thus, this particularly puzzling and perplexing prophecy stands as it has traditionally been interpreted.  And this particularly puzzling and perplexing prophecy is puzzling and perplexing no more.  For it has been fulfilled in Jesus.

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December 5, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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