Who (What) Is This Baby?
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 1:19 Introduction
The newborn in Bethlehem caused shockwaves in people’s lives. We gaze into the feeding trough and marvel, “Who is this baby, what is this baby?” We look at Jesus and wonder aloud with Pilate, “Where are You from?” (John 19:9).
We believers are not the only ones forced to ponder these questions. Since Jesus is the essence of Christian faith, our opponents always have tried, do try, and evermore shall try, to undermine Jesus’ credibility by attacking His Person.
After Christ’s ascension, the Church quickly undertook the task of trying to decide and explain who and what Jesus really was. The nature of this “larger than life” Person was so complex that early believers had to grapple with analyzing it.
Early Christians chose to base their decisions about Jesus’ Person solely on the writings of the Apostles and their immediate disciples. From the first, the vast majority of believers accepted without reservation Jesus’ deity, based primarily on essentially the 27 books which have become our present New Testament.
Our forebears quickly discarded the erroneous theory Jesus was merely a man, a position held by unbelievers, and even embraced by a few groups who call themselves Christians. The early believers (and their successors) knew they had found in Jesus more than humanity. In Him they had met God face to face.
In the early 300s A.D. Arius, a priest, tried a fanciful ploy to detract from the full deity of Christ. Arius claimed Jesus was a god, but a created, secondary god in no way one with the Father in essence. The resulting furor was so great that the first General Council (Nicaea, 325 A.D.) was convened to deal with the controversy. Arius’ views were resoundingly set aside by the Council.
Arius is the most infamous heretic in Church history, but his views continue to surface occasionally, even in sects claiming to be Christian. All who deny the absolute deity of Jesus have ever been considered non-Christian by the orthodox.
The second General Council (Constantinople, 381 A.D.) refuted the idea Christ was not fully human. Apollinarius, a priest, said Jesus was two-thirds human (body and soul), one-third divine (mind). The Council rejected the idea Jesus was part man and part God because if Christ were not fully man, His death and sacrifice would be null and void. To save us Jesus had to become like us.
The third Council (Ephesus, 431 A.D.) refuted Nestorius, who said Jesus’ two natures dwelt in Him side by side, the divine and human Christ were mutually exclusive. The Council said Christ was one person, not two people in one body.
The fourth General Council (Chalcedon, 451 A.D.) refuted Eutyches, who believed the two natures of Jesus were fused in such a way they became a third nature, something neither fully divine nor fully human. The Council rejected this notion and supported the concept of two natures together yet somehow distinct.
The first four General Councils recognized Christ as fully divine, fully human, one Person with two natures. The Chalcedon statement, which has never been improved on, beautifully describes Jesus as “God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.”
We are not bound by the first four councils, but their conclusions continue to represent the orthodox position concerning the Person of Christ. All we ever need to know about any doctrine is found in Scripture, but sometimes our faltering understanding of the Bible can be helped by hearing the explanations of others.
The Council statements have been more valuable for defining error than for delineating truth. Safeguards against heresy, the council statements point us down the right path, acting as buoys which keep ships from veering too far off course.
The councils drew a wide circle within which the correct understanding of Christ’s Person is found. The circle is very large and allows room within for plenty of further discussion, but anything outside the circle is disallowed.
It is an honor, in the twenty-first century, to join our voices with the chorus of those gone on before in support of Christ as revealed in Scripture–fully God, fully man, one Person with two natures, the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Lest we think ourselves too put-upon by having to deal with this topic two millennia after the fact, imagine how Joseph and Mary felt. They were the first to have to grapple with the issue. This baby was in her womb, and in their marriage. Let’s join Joseph in his perplexity as he struggles with how to handle this aright.
Matt. 1:19 (Holman) So her husband Joseph, being a righteous man, and not
wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly.
Jesus was conceived in a betrothed virgin. A man was in the picture, thus depicting the ideal parent situation. Take this one step farther. When the Father chose a home for His Son, the parents were not only husband and wife, but also godly husband and godly wife. The match was perfect, but the conditions baffled.
Mary pregnant??!!? We can sense Joseph’s trauma, the shock of broken trust, personal embarrassment, devastation, disappointment, deception, jealousy. Joseph was facing the dilemma of a lifetime. Troubles come even to the best.
While betrothed to her husband Joseph, Mary had been gone three months, visiting her relative Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. Joseph could only panic at the thought of what had happened while Mary was away. Not knowing the truth, Joseph drew the natural conclusion. Mary had been unfaithful.
Augustine said nothing more clearly reveals how spiritual people are than how they treat a fallen fellow believer. Peter fell terribly in Gethsemane, but Sunday morning his friend John proved himself a friend by being at Peter’s side.
When Jim Bakker was in a halfway house after being in prison, Billy and Ruth Graham came to visit him and then came to take him to church with them. The tallest among us are the ones who stoop the lowest to help the fallen.
Our text shows how well Joseph fared in helping the hurting. Not knowing what God was up to, Joseph was perplexed. God’s ways are often beyond our limited ability to grasp. In bewildering situations, Christ-followers live by faith, believing if we knew His purposes, we would heartily agree with what He’s doing.
Trapped by limited vision, Joseph had to deal as best he could with a complicated situation as he found it. What was Joseph to do? He was righteous, a man straight and true. He wanted to do right by God, and right by Mary.
Joseph was deeply troubled. It’s hard to decide what’s right when a loved one will be hurt by our decision. Even if we know the right thing to do, knowing the right way to do it can be a dilemma. In trying to be just we can act unjustly.
Knowing love and mercy have to temper righteousness, Joseph determined not to do what Judah first intended to do with his pregnant daughter-in-law Tamar. “Bring her out!” Judah said. “Let her be burned to death!” (Genesis 38:24).
A betrothed virgin who committed adultery was to be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:23-24). The full wrath of the law was rarely carried out by Joseph’s day, but he could have shown himself a true zealot for God had he branded Mary publicly. He wouldn’t do this. He still loved Mary, and didn’t want to hurt her. He refused to scandalize her, to trumpet the fall of a saint.
A second option would be to marry her while thinking she was guilty of adultery. This would implicate himself as guilty. He would let people think he was the birth-dad of the child, that he had been unrighteous, intimate with Mary before marriage. He would thus live a lie. Joseph wouldn’t do this.
A third option was to divorce her (Deuteronomy 24:1). To divorce Mary privately would in Joseph’s mind be his last, parting gift to her. This option would allow Joseph to be righteous, as God is, and also merciful, as God is. Joseph could hereby retain both his holiness and his compassion. This is the option Joseph chose until God offered a fourth option.
He married her, knowing the truth. He would not be living a lie. He could state the truth, whether people believed it or not. He hereby took his place among the many who have been willing to face embarrassment for the cause of Christ.