Saturday, 26 April 2014

Studying Jesus #4 The Birth of Jesus

“Natus ex Maria virgine”

The Virginal Conception of Jesus made its way in the Creeds of the Church as an official doctrine. Here is a brief overview of the scientific and biblical arguments for and against this theological concept. 

Scientific Context

Parthenogenesis (Greek): Literally, virgin birth, as it appeared in the Greek translation of Isaiah 7:14. This means birth without fertilization, and it occurs in plants, insects, and fish.

Hermaphrodite (Greek): This comes from Greek mythology, the child of Hermes and Aphrodite. But as a biological term, this denotes organisms that have sexual organs of both male and female sexes. 

Conclusion, birth from a single parent (virgin birth) is happening in nature. To say that such an occurrence is outside the realm of science would not be correct.

Of course, we don’t see this happening in humans. But here we need to refine our understanding of miracles. Miracles are not violation of physical laws but merely interventions in them. When I throw a ball in the air and catch it before it falls to the ground, I am not violating the law of gravity. I am intervening in it.

The human body has both potassium and oxygen in it. Usually the combination of these elements causes combustion, but our bodies don't burn. Miracle?

“No, because the law merely states what happens under idealized conditions, assuming no other factors are interfering. In this case, however, there are other factors interfering with combustion, and so it doesn't take place. That’s not a violation of the law.
Similarly, if there’s a supernatural agent that is working in the natural world, then the idealized conditions described by the law are no longer in effect. The law isn’t violated because the law has this implicit provision that nothing is messing around with the conditions." (Dr William Lane Craig, quoted in the Case for Faith).

There are laws, both natural and man-made, and exceptions exist to both of them. When we say Mary conceived Jesus as a virgin, we say that it was an exception, it was God’s intervention in the otherwise fixed order of procreation.

Scriptural Origins

Does the New Testament actually talk about the virginal conception? Let’s start from the beginning.

Paul’s Letters

The epistles of St. Paul are the earliest writings of the NT. They don’t explicitly mention the virgin birth. Romans is called the manifesto of the Christian faith, but it silent about the miraculous birth of Christ. In fact, Romans 1:3 has the Greek word σπέρμα (sperma) to denote Jesus’ lineage from David.

But in Galatians 4:4 we read:

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law

This hints at our traditional understanding of Jesus’ birth. The clue in Paul’s writings lies in the two words used for birthPaul does not use the ordinary word for "born" (γεννητός, gennetos, the word used in Matthew 11:11 in relation to John the Baptist being "born of a woman"), but the word γενόμενος, genomenos, literally meaning "become" or "come to be

And then in Romans 8:3, he says Jesus appeared in the “likeness of the flesh”. In other words, while not clearly stating Jesus’ divine ‘origins’ (for a lack of a better term), he did hint towards it.

The Gospel Narratives

Whether we read the Bible regularly or not, we all know that the Gospel accounts, in particular those written by Matthew and Luke clearly tell us that Jesus was born when Mary was a virgin. So there can be no claim about the absence of this doctrine in Scripture.

But there is one ‘problem’: the other two evangelists do not record it.

The simple answer to this objection is that Mark and John don’t record Jesus’ birth and early years to begin with. So the silence on his birth is understandable in the light of their narratives.

…however, there are indications of Jesus’ birth in these Gospel accounts. John Stott writes:

It is clear that the rumors of Jesus’ possible illegitimacy were being spread during his public ministry, in an attempt to discredit him. For example, when he declared that certain unbelieving Jews did not have Abraham as their father but the devil, they retorted, ‘We are not illegitimate’, which sounds like an innuendo that he was (John 8.41). On another occasion, this time in his own home town, when the people were offended by his teaching, they asked contemptuously, ‘Isn’t this Mary’s son?’ (Mk 6:3). In a patriarchal society this was a deliberate insult; the innunciation would not have been missed. On a third occasion unbelievers shouted at the man born blind, whom Jesus had healed: ‘We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes’ (John 9:29). These rumours of Jesus’ illegitimacy persisted long after his death. In the Jewish Talmud they became explicit. And in the third century, the Christian scholar Origen had to answer the jibe of the critic Celsus that Joseph turned Mary out of his home because she has committed adultery with a soldier named Panthera. How on earth could these hints and slanders have arisen unless it was known that Mary was already pregnant when Joseph married her? Distasteful as this gossip is, it is corroborative evidence of the virgin birth.’ (The Authentic Jesus, pg. 56-57)
In other words, in slandering Jesus, critics gave historical Jesus credence to the Christmas story.

Back to Mark and John

While we have noted above that John and Mark do record the general ideas circulating about Jesus' lineage, they still don’t explicitly mention the miraculous birth of Jesus. 

In all probability, the 4 Gospel accounts were written in different times and locations, and for different audiences. That means that the communities Mark and John were addressing had no problems in believing Jesus as their Lord and Savior without acknowledging his virgin birth, as far as textual evidence goes.

Of course, we can never tell for sure if this teaching like many others was being passed around in oral traditions in the said communities. But think about it. Would Jesus have been any different if he hadn't been conceived by a virgin girl?

I personally would say no. Jesus would have been the same. And given the kind of parents he had, self-sacrifice and obedience to God’s will would have been his pre-school lessons!

What do you think?

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Faith in Literature: What a World War II Novel Taught Me About Resurrection

While perusing old books in a popular local market near my Church last year, I stumbled across the works of Alberto Moravia. He may not be the most popular of European authors, but his work undoubtedly deserves more recognition. After finishing “Roman Tales”, I picked up the classic “Two Women”. The book is a gem on its own literary merits, but what I want to emphasize today is how Moravia brings in elements of resurrection in this novel.

An Overview

Don’t be afraid of a spoiler alert, for no review in the world can ruin a good reading experience. “Two Women” is set during WWII, and it is a fictional first-person account of Cesira and her daughter Rosetta, who have to leave Rome as the war begins. On the way to their ancestral home in Ciociaria, the women encounter financial troubles, sickness, emotional trauma, and so much more. In the most gripping point of the novel, the young Rosetta is violated by a group of soldiers inside a desolate church, right under the picture of the Madonna. Ultimately, the women make it back to their home, to which I’ll return in a while.

Why I Connect With the Story

I am not a woman, and have never seen war conditions, but I was instantly hooked on this book, because:
·         I am a student of linguistics, which is why I aspire to read world literature
·         I have a keen interest in history, which is why WWII holds special relevance for me
·         I was in the novel!

Yes, a character in the novel, Michele (at whose residence the women stay for the greatest duration), is my namesake (Michael is my second name). But more striking is the fact that Moravia’s ‘Michele’ is an idealist, a preacher, and a misfit in his circle. At one point, he gathers an audience consisting of his family, the two women, and some peasants to read out the story of Lazarus and speak about it, much to the boredom and indifference of the listeners. I have been there, especially during my early days in faith. If you get to read the novel, you will come across some shades of my personality as well!

‘Resurrection’ of the Two Women

War brings out the worst in people. Cesira has to lie, cheat, and steal her way out of situations to protect herself and her daughter, while Rosetta, once being violated, goes into a rampant spree of immorality as if she doesn’t feel any shame anymore. Just at the end of the novel, the women travel with a young man named Rosario (with whom Rosetta engages in immorality with) who is shot to death. But the women stay indifferent, and hop on another ride with a stranger. In this time of complete insensitivity and indifference, Cesira and Rosetta have a life changing experience, and here I can’t help copying the text:
“At last, at the farthest end of the wide green plain, there appeared...the suburbs of Rome. And beyond this streak, rose the dome of St.Peter’s. God knows how earnestly I had hoped, to see that beloved dome again on the distant horizon. That, for me, was not merely Rome, it was life in Rome, the serenity of days lived at peace with oneself and with others. Far away on the horizon, that dome was saying to me that I could now return home confidently and that, even after so many changes and tragedies, the old life would take up its course again. It also told me that I owed this new-found confidence to Rosetta, and to her singing and her tears. And that, had it not been for this sorrow on Rosetta’s part, there would have arrived in Rome, not the two unoffending women who had left it a year before, but the thief and the prostitute which they had become, during the war and because of the war.
Sorrow. Back into my mind came Michele, who was not with us .....and I remembered the evening in the hut at Sant’Eufemia when he had read aloud to us the passage about Lazarus, and had been so angry with peasants who had failed to understand anything, and had cried out that we were all dead and waiting for resurrection, like Lazarus. At the time Michele’s words had left me in doubt: but now I saw that Michele had been right; and that, for some time now, we two, Rosetta and I, had indeed been dead, dead to the pity that we owe to others and to ourselves. But sorrow had saved us.... we had emerged from the war which has enclosed us in its tomb of indifference and wickedness, and had started to walk again along the path of our own life....

The women who were devastated inside a church find solace in the sight of St.Peter’s dome. And the story of Lazarus, once considered boring and repetitive, comes to life and gives them the hope to move on.

That is what resurrection is. It is hope for the world, a world corrupted by collective and individual sins. Resurrection is hope for real people with real problems, something that I'm sure most sermons today will miss.

Jesus didn't rise from the dead just to enter his Glory and enjoy the privileges of Kingdom. He rose from the grave so that we never lose hope. “Because I live, you also will live!”

To end this piece, here is a non-fiction of version on the same theme, narrated by Ravi Zacharias:
“Billy Graham once told of meeting Konrad Adenaur, the mayor of Cologne who was imprisoned by Hitler for opposing the Nazi regime and who later became the highly regarded chancellor of West Germany from 1949 to 1963. Adenaur looked Graham in the eyes and asked, ‘Do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead?’ Graham said, ‘Of course I do.’ To which Adenaur replied: ‘Mr. Graham, outside of the resurrection of Jesus, I do not know of any other hope for this world.’ (The Case for Faith pg 214)

Happy Easter!

Friday, 18 April 2014

'I Thirst': Reflections On The Life-Changing Death

22nd April 2011 was sad day in Pakistan as the country the mourned the death of legendary actor and comedian, Moin Akhtar. But I, along with the millions of Christians in Pakistan and billions around the world, were remembering what we consider to be the most significant death in human history. It was Good Friday.     
 As my mentor says, the death of Jesus is unique because it was a natural death. Man was not created to perish, he was created to live. But Jesus said about himself:

Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many…….

Jesus was the only one who came to die! That is why we hold his death in esteem, and observe the day traditionally believed to be the day of the crucifixion. The way of doing this in most congregations is to focus on the “Seven Last Words” of Jesus from 12pm to 3pm in the afternoon.

But I mentioned Good Friday 2011 here specifically because on that day I was invited to speak on the 5th saying: “I am thirsty”.

Here are the notes of what I shared at that small congregation. Hopefully they will give you something to contemplate on today:

28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit (John 19)
If we look at all the events from the arrest of Jesus all the way up to his crucifixion, one can easily understand that he is declaring an actual, physical thirst here. He was beaten, there was heavy blood loss, and he picked up his own cross for I don’t know how many miles. Thirst, hence, would the least of the weaknesses he would have been feeling at that point.

But a prophecy was also fulfilled (Psalm 22:15, 69:3).
 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;you lay me in the dust of death.

I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched.My eyes fail,  looking for my God.
Fulfilled prophecy, as stated before, is one of the defining qualities of the Bible that makes it unique. It is amazing to note how accurately Jesus's suffering's were portrayed in the OT.  He himself  recites this Psalm on the cross (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34)

But here is the thought provoking part! We read in Matthew 27:34 and Mark 15:23 that he refused to consume the wine offered to him by the soldiers. This gives us a clue that when Jesus said “I Thirst”, he implied something deeper.

34 There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it.

The wine mixed with gall would have sedated him, thereby lowering his pain. But he didn’t have it.

His thirst was then, firstly, obeying the will of His Father (John 4:33-34). It was obedience to God that led Jesus to go through the excruciating (a word derived from the word “cross”) pain to face perhaps the most brutal death of the time. All for the Glory of God!

He knew that his job on this earth was complete with his suffering and death, so now his thirst was to go back to his original state, the glory he shared with God since eternity.

The same holds true for us believers as well. If we have to share in his glory, we have to share in his sufferings as well:

21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Philippians 1)

 Every believer’s desire is to leave this body of death and join Christ in God’s eternal kingdom….but we have to remain in the body and first have our share of necessary suffering.

This is what makes his death so powerful, because it had a purpose. Do our lives have a purpose?

Wishing you a Holy Good Friday.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Studying Jesus #3 On the 3rd Day He Rose Again

While I initially planned a post on Jesus's birth and early years following the last installment in this series, I thought the time was right to publish something on the Resurrection, since we have entered the Passion Week (Of course, a separate Easter post will be featured on Sunday!). 

Meanwhile, here are notes from another Sunday School lesson I took last year at my previous congregation:

Jesus Christ rose again from the dead on the 3rd day. But how can we believe such an amazing thing? Here are 3 points to think about:

The Empty Tomb

On the Sunday after his crucifixion, early in  the morning, the tomb of Jesus was found to be empty. We know this because:

·         Women went to the tomb-At that time, women were not considered equal to men. If this was a made up story, the writers would have never mentioned women because nobody would believe them.
·         The disciples initially did not believe that Jesus had really risen from the dead (Matthew 28:17, John 20:9, 24) Later on, the disciples became the leaders of the church. Once again, if the empty tomb was a made up story, the disciples would not have been shown in this light.
·         The Jewish leaders had to make up lies (Matthew 28:11-15)-If the tomb was not empty, why would they to make up stories to explain the missing body?

Visions of Jesus

At different times and different occasions, the risen Jesus appeared to many people (Luke 24:13-35, 1 corinthians 15:6). Were these hallucinations? No, because different people do not hallucinate at the same time. Moreover, Saul (who latter became Saint Paul) was at first an enemy of the Church. Then how come he saw the risen Jesus (Acts 9:1-5) if Jesus wasn’t actually alive?

The Preaching of Disciples

Finally, the disciples who were in hiding suddenly started preaching that Jesus had risen from the dead. What made them so brave? Another thing to notice is that the tomb of Jesus was in Jerusalem and the disciples preached the message of resurrection in Jerusalem. If Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, then the disciples would have no chance of being successful. However, they managed to convert thousands of people within days (Acts 2:41, 47)

We also have to look at the changed lives of the disciples:

  • Peter denied Jesus 3 times, but ended up converting 3000 people in one day
  • Thomas doubted Jesus, but he traveled all the way to India to preach the message. The St.Thomas Church in Chennai was built in his name
  • Paul wanted to finish the Church, but ended up being its greatest martyr and missionary. He planted more churches than anyone else, and wrote the most number of books in the Bible.

If Jesus of Nazareth didn’t rise from the dead, how do you explain all these things?

For the last part in the series, read Studying Jesus #4

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