Many years ago, I heard a New Testament scholar argue that he is looking forward to a time when the word baptize (which is currently translated as to baptize) will be translated as immerse. His argument was that the word baptize has become a sweet word in contrast with the danger of the word immerse. Our English understanding is not the same as in the Greek, where baptism held the possibility that you might lose your life. But when you are immersed, you face two possibilities – one that you will come up from the water alive or that the waters will swallow you and you will die. Karl Barth, the great 20th century theologian, also argued in this fashion by emphasizing that Jesus talks about baptism as his death when he says to his disciples, “Can you drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:39) In another place, Paul talks about the baptism of Israel through the Red Sea as coming through the waters alive while the Egyptians drowned. (1 Cor. 10:2)
Donald T Williams, a Latin and English scholar, writes about the Nicene expression et incarnates est, which translates as “He became incarnate.” Williams challenges us to understand what happened: “Incarnation is one of those words that we have used so often we have forgotten what it means. We have taken what was once the most shockingly concrete word ever uttered and rendered it down into a powerless and completely unthreatening abstraction. To recapture its proper potency though, all we have to do is to remember the Spanish descendant of the original Latin root, which will retain its pristine precision; carne as in chili con. What we confess in the Creed is that the eternal, holy Son of God came down from heaven and was made meat.” (Credo, 45)
It may be that William’s description seems pedantic or vulgar to some, but we have to remember that God considered humanity good and worthy of redemption even after we sinned. This is in contrast with Socrates who wanted to leave his body, which he considered a prison of his soul, and the Gnostic who were dualists and abhorred human flesh. God is the creator of flesh and the redeemer of flesh, and he did that by becoming what we are.
One of the earliest heresies of the church was called Docetism. They argued that Christ appeared to be human, but he was not. While God had appeared to humanity before, the incarnation was completely different. Those who believed in Docetism missed that the Son of God, God of God, became one of us. He became human for us and our salvation.
Benjamin Corey, who writes for the progressive Christian magazine Patheos, wrote that atheistic and more liberal theologians do not accept the incarnation, the birth, and therefore, the historicity of Jesus. That is why the title of his article for Christmas was “Oh, Good Grief, Yes Jesus Was a Real Historical Figure!”. Corey’s concern was also demonstrated in a recent edition of Sunday’s Asbury Park Press. On December 17, a lead article was called “US sees more jingle, less Jesus in Christmas.” The article reported that fewer people uphold certain biblical principles: Jesus, born to a virgin went down from 73% to 66%; Baby Jesus laid in a manger from 81% to 75%; wise men guided by a star, brought gifts to Jesus from 75% to 68%; an angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds from 74% to 67%. This was a slide over a period of three years; 51% claimed that Christmas was a religious holiday then, but only 46% say the same this year.
How did we get here? The simple answer is that some people in our homes, churches, and universities stopped teaching these truths about the incarnation, birth, and the historicity of Jesus, while others taught the opposite. Some scholars say things that are not truthful and then they become quoted as authorities on the subject. I place William Barclay, one of the most quoted New Testament writers in the second part of the 20th century, into this category. In his commentary on Matthew he writes, “This passage tells us how Jesus was born by the action of the Holy Spirit. It tells us of what we call the Virgin Birth. The Virgin birth is a doctrine which presents us with many difficulties; and it is a doctrine which our Church does not compel us to accept in literal sense and in physical sense. This is one of the doctrines on which the Church says that we have full liberty to come to our own belief and our own conclusion.” The only problem with this quote is that it is completely false. The church in all its creeds (Apostolic, Nicene, Chalcedonian) retains the fact that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and that he was crucified in the days of Pontius Pilate. The fact that the Virgin Birth presents us with difficulties does not mean that we can eliminate it or declare it meaningless to our faith.
I heard someone quoting the great G.K. Chesterton that fallacies do not become truthful just because they become fashionable. The trend of not believing the details about the birth of Jesus may be in fashion, but it does not make them true. We should not be embarrassed to proclaim the truth as it has been proclaimed for two thousand years ago about his incarnation, his suffering and death, his resurrection, and ascension. Just as two thousand years ago, the Israelites and others waited for the first time of Christ’s coming (in the fullness of time, God did send His son), so in this time we are waiting for the second coming of the Lord Jesus (the same Jesus who went up is coming down again).
Maranatha! Come Lord, Jesus! Your proclaiming church is waiting for your glorious return.