The Birth of Jesus Christ — Part One
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The Birth of Jesus Christ — Part One

Luke 2:1–5  (ID: 2993)

While Luke tells the story of Christ’s birth in just seven verses, his brevity holds no bearing on the importance of the events that unfolded. In this study, Alistair Begg shows how the brief Gospel account uses detail, not drama, to establish its real-world context. Jesus was born not in a vacuum but to real people at a real place in time. Each one of us must consider the historical evidence of the birth of Christ and the relevance that the story has for our lives today.

Series Containing This Sermon

Good News, Great Joy

Luke 2:1–32 Series ID: 27401

Encore 2016

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 25907

Sermon Transcript: Print

Luke 2:1:

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Luke recognizes that there was a second, more famous registration, which is referenced in the Acts of the Apostles, and by this means he’s distinguishing between that and this. “And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

“… In the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’

“When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”

Thanks be to God for his Word.

Father, with our Bibles open before us, help us, we earnestly pray, that in familiar territory we might meet with you afresh in the person of your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Luke records the birth of Jesus in just seven verses. What a staggering thought, isn’t it? That such a momentous event should be covered in such an economical fashion. In fact, it’s not only the brevity of the announcement that has struck me again this week; it is the fact that there is nothing particularly remarkable about it. It is remarkable in that it is so unremarkable—that what is striking is that there is nothing particularly striking. It seems to be reported in a manner that is devoid of, certainly, histrionics or any of the attendant manifestations that we might expect if somebody were concocting a story. The delivery of the baby was entirely normal. There was nothing particularly interesting about it; that’s why there is nothing mentioned about it. It was the conception of the baby that was out of the ordinary. And the juxtaposition between the natural and the supernatural, which is there in verses 6–7 and in the background to it, will be the focus of our study this evening.

But for this morning, we’re only going to look at the first five verses. In these verses, Luke—who was the companion, of course, of Paul on his journeys—Luke provides us with observations that cover the political, the social, the geographical, and the historical. I’m going to spend most of the time on the historical, but let’s just note for a moment what he says to us in setting the story of Jesus in its political context. This brief introduction is, says Michael Wilcock, “a little jewel of [economic] story-telling.”[1] Some of us take an awful long time to say very little. It is a wonderful gift to be able to say a lot in relatively short order. And for those of you who cherish brevity, Luke is your man.

Well, first of all, politically. Look at what we’re told: “In those days”—that’s a time frame—“a decree went out from Caesar Augustus.” Caesar Augustus, as many of us know from school, ruled the Roman Empire for a period of some forty-four years. From approximately 30 BC to 14 AD, he was in charge. And by all accounts, he did a terrific job. His organizational skills established the communities of Rome in a period of peace which extended beyond his rule but certainly began within it, giving to us what we refer to in historical terms as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, which, interestingly, was largely contributing to the way in which Christianity developed in the early years after the resurrection of Jesus. If you like, Augustus was responsible for setting up the thoroughfares down which the good news would travel.

It is also a strange providence, in keeping with what we’ve been discovering in Esther, that the way in which the arrival of the Messiah would take place in Bethlehem—which, of course, is prophesied in Micah 5: “But you, Bethlehem, though you be least among the rulers of Israel, out of you will come forth who will be the ruler of my people Israel.”[2] You will remember that. You can find it in your Bible when you look for it. So the promise of God, the prophecy of God, six hundred years before the arrival of Jesus, was that when the Messiah came, he would be born in Bethlehem. How were we gonna get the right person in Bethlehem at the right time? Well, interestingly, Caesar Augustus was the man. It’s not that God used him as a pawn on a chessboard. Caesar Augustus was Caesar Augustus. He decided it was time for a decree. The decree was such that everyone had to go. And in the course of events, that involved Joseph, and Mary too. The Jewish community was exempted from military service but was not exempted from the responsibilities of revenue or taxation. And Quirinius is identified here by Luke as the individual who was responsible for overseeing that registration process. Somebody had to do it, and Quirinius was the one appointed.

Now, when you read this—and I hope you will pause on it and just look at it; it’s really just the first two verses, isn’t it?—we’re struck by the fact that it really is quite mundane, isn’t it? It’s not exactly the way you would expect the whole thing to unfold. After all, we’re writing about the birth of the Messiah. “In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed”—King James Version. And all went, including Mary and Joseph.

Well, you see, Luke does this. And it’s important that we understand that he does. If you turn over a page to chapter 3, you will realize how committed he is to making it clear to his readers that this Jesus story, which is the story that he’s telling, does not exist in a vacuum. It is not something that is plucked out of space, as it were, and settled into time, but rather, the story that he tells concerning Jesus—because he’s writing biography, but not really only biography—that story, that biographical narrative, is set within a political framework. And he likes to do this. And in chapter 3—which, if you regard chapters 1 and 2 as his introduction to the Gospel, then you could say that the whole thing really gets going in chapter 3. And how does it get going? In the same way as chapter 2: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being the tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip,” and so on. Now, for those of us who did history at school, we probably look at this and say, “Well, that’s just what we used to do: we used to pad it up as best we could, because we didn’t really know what we were going to say after we got through some of the facts.” But that’s not what he’s doing at all. And I want to point that out to you as we proceed. He is setting the story of Jesus, the narrative of Jesus, as having taken place in real time and in a real place, politically.

Secondly, socially. Socially. This registration process wasn’t optional. You will notice that Caesar Augustus wanted “all” of the world to be registered. He means there the whole Roman world, the world over which he had jurisdiction. And what Caesar Augustus wants, Caesar Augustus gets, as verse 3 makes clear: “And all went to be registered.” “I want everybody to be registered.” “We’re all going to be registered, Caesar, just as you said.”

And so the picture is of households preparing for these journeys, and they’re all going back to their place of their birth, to where they came from. That’s the way they organized it. It’s not that they were just showing up, as it were, at particular registration stations willy-nilly but that the organizational strategy was that everybody would return to the place of their birth, for the context out of which they had come, ethnically and sociologically. It’s a good plan. And consequently, it is in that context that we discover Mary and Joseph making their journey along with the others.

Now, you will notice that it tells us here—and this is a little social note as well—that Joseph “went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, … Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David,” and he was going “to be registered with Mary, his betrothed.” “His betrothed.” We’re not gonna delay on this, but it’s important to notice that the relationship that they enjoyed was not yet marriage in all of its fullness. But it was certainly something more than our contemporary notions of being engaged. Betrothal at this time could only be ended by formal divorce proceedings. And part of the reason, presumably, for Joseph determining to take Mary with him on this occasion is in recognition of the fact that had he left her behind, she would have been absent his support when confronted by the angry glances and the cynical statements concerning the bump on her tummy, because she was already expectant. But Joseph had never slept with her. That’s tonight.

And also, it would make sense for him to keep her in close proximity in order that as a dutiful lover and friend and husband-to-be, he would care for her at the time of her birth. There was no requirement for the ladies to go; it was a very patriarchal society. It was only important that the head of the household went. It’s a bit like when you fly into United States and you complete the immigration forms. You know that they say, “Only one necessary for each family,” so that one member of the family can complete it for everybody else. So you put your name, you put your date of birth, you give your information, you give your passport number, and one of the first questions you’re asked is, “How many family members are traveling with you?” And you speak on their behalf. That was the way it worked. It was to Joseph that the responsibility would be, so that the registration would take place as planned. And presumably they would have asked questions like “Your name? Where are you from? Your date of birth? Do you have any children? What is your occupation? Do you own property? And how many bathrooms do you have? And do you have a vacuum cleaner?” No. That is to pitch the twenty-first century back into the first century. That’s our contemporary census: “Do you have an outdoor fireplace?” None of your business! But thanks for asking anyway. So…

In other words, they were not standing back from the demands of the political and social context. The point, again, is that Luke is making it clear that if one had wanted to, one could have gone to the record of public registration and looked up the name of Joseph—Joseph from the house and lineage of David; looked up and discovered that he was betrothed to a lady, Mary; to look up and discover that his background was built in Bethlehem, although he had proceeded from Nazareth in order to engage in the registration. What’s the point? In order that people could make it absolutely clear in their own minds that they were dealing with real people in a real place. Real people in a real place. Not imaginary people in a created place. Keep that thought in mind.

A Christian believer is certain about certain things. This does not mean that they are certain about everything. It doesn’t mean that they know everything about everything.

He sets the context politically. He sets the context socially. He sets the context geographically, telling us that they have gone “to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.” Those of us who know our Bibles will have certain thoughts immediately triggered. Others of us won’t have any thoughts triggered except the ones that I’m trying to trigger in your mind as I speak to you now, which may then trigger you to go and find out whether what I’m telling you is actually in the Bible—which would be a good exercise, especially on a cold afternoon like this when you don’t have the opportunity to listen to the string quartet.

Bethlehem. Bethlehem was stirred at the arrival of a lady who had left with a husband and two sons. Her name was Naomi. They had gone in search of bread, from “the town of bread,” because of the famine. She’d lost her husband. She lost both her sons. With a triple bereavement, she returns with only one of her daughters-in-law, a bright girl called Ruth. And when they reemerged in Bethlehem, when you read the record there in that other wonderful short story, you discover that particularly the female population of Bethlehem was stirred up at the arrival of Naomi after this time.[3]

Bethlehem. The fields surrounding Bethlehem, where a shepherd boy, David, looked after his father’s sheep. Bethlehem, the place where Samuel arrived in obedience to God’s word to look for a replacement for King Saul, who had blotted his copybook and had been sidelined by God. Bethlehem, where Samuel asked Jesse, “Bring your sons out. One of them’s going to be the king.” They all came. None of them chosen. “Is there anyone else?” “Well, we got one more. But he just looks after the sheep.” “Bring him in.” And the suntanned, handsome youngest member of the sons becomes the shepherd king of Israel.[4]

A thousand years have elapsed. And now, once again, in Bethlehem, presumably in that same surrounding property, in those same fields, there is to be a stirring all over again as the skies are filled up with angelic visitation and as the skies echo to the songs of salvation. This is what Luke is telling us. I say to you again that I think it’s fairly routine. The details are in keeping with his stated purpose.

The reason that he does this—let me remind you of it again, but this time turn you back a page rather than forward a page. If you turn back a page, you come to the opening verses of the Gospel, verses 1–4, which is, incidentally, just one long sentence in Greek. It’s an amazing sentence. It shows how skillful Luke is with language. We know that Luke was a physician, and may I say it kindly: we know what physicians are like—at least the good ones. They do these case studies when you go and see them. They ask you all kinds of questions. Don’t they?

You say, “Why do we have to do this? Give me the stuff.”

“No, no, no, no, no, no. We’re not going to prescribe before we diagnose. We need to know who you are and what you are. Do you sleep?”


“How much do you sleep?”

“Not as much as I would like.”

“Do you snore?”

“Is it important?”

“Yes, it is. Do you keep your wife awake?”

“Mind your own business.” And so it goes on.

Now, why do they do that? Well, actually, it’s very clever, isn’t it? Because what they’re actually going to do is finally put within the framework of all of that investigation their analysis of the presenting facts, and then their deduction on the strength of those facts, and then their diagnosis on the basis of that which they have gleaned.

Luke brings that kind of mentality to his writing of this Gospel. That’s what he’s really doing. And when you look at this—and we won’t unpack it—you will see that he says that he has compiled this narrative—he says, “I have compiled this narrative not on the basis of my eyewitnesses, my ability to witness it with my own eyes, but on the basis of my ability to interview those who were eyewitnesses of these things.”[5]

And it’s quite a thought, isn’t it, to imagine Luke being in the context where Mary, now old but still alive, is available for an interview? And he says, “Mary, would it be okay if I came over and talked with you for a little while?” “Well, certainly it would.” Well, why is that? “Well, because I want to ask you. I want to get it, as it were, from the horse’s mouth—although I don’t mean to be unkind in saying that. I want to get it absolutely clear what happened with that birth thing in Bethlehem. Because I’m writing a gospel. I want to write it down, and I don’t want to violate any of the principles that are true to my background and my career. I want to make sure that it is careful, that it is orderly, and that it is set out in such a way that there is no flimflam in it. It’s just as it happened. That’s why I want to talk to you.”

And that, he says, is what he did. And what he discovered was that those who had become the preachers of this good news discovered that when they told the good news, people were changed by it. And Luke determined that if he took that same good news and he wrote it down, then when people read what was written down about what had been preached back then, then other lives would be changed by it too. And that is exactly what happens. That’s why many of you are able to testify to the impact that the Bible has made in your life. How strange is this, that this ancient book is a book that not only do we seek to understand but a book that so clearly understands us?

You see, Luke is not providing philosophy, or an idea, or a theory, or even a religion. He is providing, he says, an honest account of actual events. An honest account of actual events. There is nothing in the Gospel of Luke—indeed, there is nothing in the Gospels at all—of our contemporary fascination with vagueness and with simply possibilities. This is an age in which it is kind of trendy to be seeking, but it’s absolutely taboo to say that you have found. It’s okay to have a concept, to have an idea, to have a construct, but the one thing that you mustn’t do is say, “I’m absolutely certain about this.” Because certitude is the one thing that we need to stand back from.

Luke is not concerned. He says, “The reason I’m writing this stuff down for you, Theophilus, and all the other Theophiluses and people like him, is in order that you might know with certainty”—with certainty—“the things that you’ve been taught.”[6] He’s not satisfied with anything less than that.

You see, a Christian believer is certain about certain things. For a Christian believer to say that they are certain about certain things does not mean that they are certain about everything. It doesn’t mean that they know everything about everything. It doesn’t mean that they have settled every question that exists in the universe. It just means that they are certain about certain things. And the certain things about which Luke wants Theophilus to be certain concern the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of this character Jesus of Nazareth. And all of this was taking place in real time. In other words, he is addressing history. History.

Now, there is a growing skepticism in our day—it’s well advanced—about the knowability of just about anything, not least of all history. Therefore, we ought not to be surprised when the Christian story and the conviction that the New Testament unfolds of a historical basis for Christianity is forcibly challenged. And it is. It’s not possible to exist, at least in Western culture at this point in history, without realizing that routinely, whether it is in contemporary magazines or in contemporary fiction, there is a sort of underlying “nudge, nudge, wink, wink,” in relationship to the notion of Christianity as being, “You know, we don’t mind if you people want to get into that stuff. I can see that it helps you a little bit,” or “you seem to feel a little better about your mother-in-law,” or “it gives you a crutch to lean on,” or whatever else it is. “But please don’t come to us suggesting that you are dealing in the realm of verifiable data.” Right?

Now, this doesn’t come from academic historians. If you read academic history—and I don’t read a lot of it, but I read enough of it to be able to say what I’m saying to you now, and that is that academic historians give far more credence to the New Testament documents than most of us would ever believe. They do not make the same deductions from those documents as a Christian might make, but even secular historians are prepared to say, “Yes, we recognize this.” They’re not calling in question the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. They understand that. They know that the data is verifiable in relationship to that.

No, the bigger challenge comes from popular fiction writers—and most notably in the last decade, from the pen of Dan Brown and his Da Vinci Code. I’ve lost track of how many people are prepared to turn a page in The Da Vinci Code and have Dan Brown, of all people, explain to them the significance of the New Testament documents and why the whole thing is a crock. Those same people are unprepared to turn the page in the Bible, largely, and allow the Bible to affirm certain things.

I wonder, have you thought this out? The opposition comes from those who claim to be on the side of reason. “We’re reasonable people, and our reason is incompatible with your faith.” That’s what they say. And we’re right up to the minute on this. I find it wonderful when, on a Saturday afternoon and I’m working away as I’m preparing this stuff, when I can sort of turn to the side and pull up a thought that I have without knowing that the thought is verified by what I’m about to discover. “What do you mean?” Well, look at this. Look at this slide. That’s Times Square today. New York, Times Square. And New Yorkers are in the face of what we might refer to as a billboard war. You see how clever it is: “Here’s Santa Claus, an imaginary figure. Stick with Santa and stay ‘MERRY!’ Here is Jesus of Nazareth, a mythological figure. You don’t want to hang around with somebody like that.” There it is.

Now, I’m saddened in part, but I’m delighted on another basis. I wish I lived in New York today. It’d be impossible to be in Times Square without going, “Hey, what do you think of that?” Bring on the conversation! I’d like to have it. Let’s talk about it. It’s not unique. I went to search and see what else there is. On the New Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel, there is another one. There it is! Look at these people. They’re so good; my people are so good. There it is. I was gonna describe it to you, but they produced it, from the first service to the second service. “You KNOW it’s a Myth: This Season, Celebrate REASON!” Well, I say, “Good. I’m up for that. This season, celebrate reason.”

Now, let’s turn to the New Testament documents and ask the question, “Is it reasonable? Is there sufficient evidence for us to conclude that the presentation that is provided for us by the Gospel writers affirms the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth?”

Let’s just first of all determine whether there was a Jesus of Nazareth. Where’s the evidence? Well, it points to the fact there was. Tacitus, the Roman historian in AD 115, who had no interest in supporting the claims of Jesus Christ, was absolutely convinced that Jesus was not mythological.[7] Josephus in AD 95, as a Jew, affirmed the fact of the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus as proclaimed by his followers, who got together and worshipped on the first day of the week, declaring him to be God.[8] So, those early historians were in no doubt concerning these things. The subtlety of this is the suggestion that somehow or another, if you’re a thinking person, if you’re a reasonable person, then you will want to remove yourself from all the unreasonability of reading those Gospel narratives.

And if our young people—just in passing—if our youngsters are not convinced of these things before they go off into the wide world of academic study, then they will come back worse off than they left. If they are not prepared—not by marshaling quick answers and knee-jerk responses to challenges—but unless they are prepared by thinking out for themselves the very rationality of that which is affirmed in terms of the New Testament data, then they will very quickly be at sea.

No, it’s just a wonderful time, isn’t it? I mean, it’s a great time for us, to have opportunity like this. I’m not wringing my hands, and I hope you aren’t too, if you’re a follower of Jesus. Because the Bible actually tells us—1 Corinthians 2—that it’s not natural to believe in Jesus. The Bible makes it perfectly clear that evidence does not compel faith. If evidence compelled faith, then all that we would need would be evidence. It doesn’t. The New Testament makes clear that ultimately there is no intellectual road to God. Because by nature the natural man—this is quoting Paul now, in 1 Corinthians 2—the natural man “does not accept”—does not accept—“the things of the Spirit of God, for they[’re] folly to him.” So let’s be fair. “This sounds ridiculous to me.” That’s what my friend would say. “It sounds foolish.” He’s “not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”[9]

Well then, how will he discern them? How will we discern the presence of God? Antony Flew, who was the great, great, most significant United Kingdom atheist of the second half of the twentieth century—far more so than Richard Dawkins. Richard Dawkins popularized it, but Flew was the man. Flew, before he died in his eighties, did not embrace Christianity, but he at least embraced the notion of deism. He said that although he had lived his entire life—his entire academic life—as an atheist, he had been compelled by the discoveries in the Genome Project to realize that the intricacies that were brought together in the discoveries of microscience were so compelling that he could no longer go to his grave without acknowledging that there was an intelligence that produced these realities. That was his conviction. Dawkins’s reaction to that would be “Flew went crazy just before he died.”[10] It’s not the same as saying that he embraced the New Testament documents, but at least he said there was sufficient there for him to compel belief.

And another like him in the twentieth century was C. S. Lewis, who decides there is no God, who lives as if there is no God, and then one day he is “surprised by joy.” He then becomes an arch-defender of these Christian convictions, the historicity of the Gospel, and so on. And when he came up against those who produced material like this—you know, “Be merry, reject the myth”—he wrote in Christian Reflections as follows: “I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, [and] myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know [none] of them [are] like this.”[11] Legends, myths, vision literature does not begin, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be [taxed].” “No,” says Lewis, “you’re not going to be able to get off just as easy as that.”

The Bible makes it perfectly clear that evidence does not compel faith. If evidence compelled faith, then all that we would need would be evidence.

Joseph Ratzinger, the German theologian who became Pope Benedict XVI, writes in his book Jesus of Nazareth, “It is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events. It does not tell stories symbolizing suprahistorical truths, but is based on history, history that took place here on this earth.”[12] Well, did it or didn’t it? Truth or fiction? Consider the material. The New Testament does not call us into the realm of blind faith. It doesn’t call us to take a leap into the dark. It invites us to take a step into the light.

Let me finish in this way. I’ve been helped, and you will be too, by reading the work of John Dickson, who’s been with us here from Australia on a couple of occasions. He’s an able historian as well as a very effective pastor and teacher. In one of his books, he reminds us, as his readers, of Aristotle’s observations concerning the way in which a man or a woman comes to believe something. And although many years have elapsed since Aristotle was around, still these observations have some validity.

This is what Aristotle said. There are three ways, or three dimensions, that stand out. First of all, the logos, or the intellectual journey to belief, which involves common sense, it involves consideration of facts, it involves sifting the evidence, and so on. But not simply the logos; secondly, pathos, which is not the intellectual, but it is the emotional and the personal response—the way in which, at a visceral level, somebody presents something to us, and it rings a bell with us, it stirs us, it answers a longing in our hearts, or it pushes us in a certain direction. And then, thirdly, along with the logos and the pathos, the ethos—this time not the intellectual or the personal and emotional, but rather the social. In other words, recognizing that each of us comes out of a framework, out of a sense of connectedness to other people,[13] and that when a man or a woman comes to believe in Jesus, said Aristotle, these things are interplaying with one another.

If you think about that, sometimes when we have baptism, you listen to somebody tell how they came to follow Jesus. And they might say, “Somebody gave me a book, and I read it.” That was the intellectual. Or that “I was over at somebody’s house, and we were playing music,” and they said, you know, that “that song by that person actually addresses that question, and something happened, and it just registered with me, and I couldn’t get rid of it.” That was pathos. And others will say, “And, you know, I actually had an aunt who, when I used to go over to her house, particularly at the holiday time, she would always want to tell me about the Bible. I guess I had that as part of my ethos.”

So, when you hear people tell about their conversion to Christianity, you mostly will discover that all of those elements are involved. When you hear people expressing their opposition to Christianity, you almost inevitably find that they only answer on the level of the logos. They say, “This is intellectually untenable”—as if somehow or another, they don’t have a pathos and they don’t have an ethos; as if somehow or another, they are the objective ones, they don’t have any volitional dimension, they don’t have any presuppositions. We’re only the ones with presuppositions. No!

That’s why Huxley… My favorite atheist was Aldous Huxley. Now, Huxley said, “I had a reason for not wanting to believe in God. I didn’t want to believe in God. Because,” he said, “to disbelieve in God was for me a basis for moral and political freedom. I could do what I want and I could believe what I want, without reference to any higher power.”[14] I love that honesty. What he’s saying is he comes out of an ethos and a pathos whereby he marshals the logos.

Well, let me end in this way: How about you? How about you? I don’t know. Luke is writing; he says, “I want you to be certain about these things.” How certain can you be? The woman at the well sits down, and pretty soon she’s on the logos; she’s asking questions like, “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” It’s an intellectual question, isn’t it? Then she moves to pathos: “Give me this water. I’m so thirsty. I’d like to have a drink of water, that I’d never be thirsty again.” And then the ethos: she goes back into the town, and she says, “Hey folks, come and see somebody who told me everything that I ever did.” And the people eventually come, and they say, “And we believe today, not simply because of what the lady told us, but we believe because we have heard for ourselves. We have examined the evidence as it has been presented to us, and this is our conviction.”[15]

In most of the attacks on Christianity—and I’m not saying that in a paranoid way—in most of the attacks, there is a sad lack of consideration for the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Dawkins in The God Delusion virtually ignores Jesus in his entirety. He doesn’t interact with Jesus at all. That’s pretty shrewd on his part. Because Jesus is his real problem. The real problem is not the Genesis narratives. The real problem is Jesus. Is this Jesus the Jesus that Luke says he is? That’s the question. If he is, we have a conversation. If he isn’t, this is a manifest waste of time, and I’m gone before we ever get to the Christmas concerts.

It’s as simple as that. That was the logic of Paul: If Christ is not risen, then the whole thing is hogwash; if he is risen, we have a conversation to have.[16] And isn’t it interesting—and again, without being paranoid—that the challenges that are represented in Times Square and beyond, they don’t involve Judaism. They don’t involve Hinduism. They don’t involve Islam. They don’t involve Buddhism. You think you’re gonna see a picture of Muhammad up there? Why not?

Well, if I was the devil, à la Screwtape Letters… Incidentally, the devil is really in the news this week as well, isn’t he, as a result of Antonin Scalia mentioning the devil in one of his judgments for the Supreme Court? Fantastic. The atheists went nuts because they thought, “Scalia believes in the devil.” He actually does. And he said in the court, he says, “Haven’t you read Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis?” So wonderful. Now I’ve talked myself off the point.

But the fact is, if I was the Evil One, I’d say, “Well, don’t worry about opposing the idea that the angel Gabriel gave a direct dictation—an entire dictation—of the Qur’an to Muhammad. Don’t bother opposing that. People know that didn’t happen. Don’t bother opposing the mystical origins of Hinduism. Don’t do it. Don’t waste your time on Buddhism, for there was no god in Buddhism. No, let’s go for this Jesus guy. He’s our problem. He just won’t die! He just won’t go away. He just stands at the intersection of history and calls out to us, ‘I am who I say I am. Take me at my word. Believe in me. I love you. I came to seek you. I came to save you.’”

Let us pray:

O God our Father, look upon us in your mercy. Save us from ourselves. Help us in our search. Fulfill your purposes in us and through us. For we ask it in your Son’s name. Amen.

[1] Michael Wilcock, The Message of Luke: The Saviour of the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1979), 43.

[2] Micah 5:2 (paraphrased).

[3] See Ruth 1:1–19.

[4] See 1 Samuel 16:1–12.

[5] See Luke 1:1–2.

[6] Luke 1:3–4 (paraphrased).

[7] Tacitus, Annals 15.44.

[8] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.3.

[9] 1 Corinthians 2:14 (ESV).

[10] See Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006; repr., Boston: Mariner, 2008), 106n.

[11] C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 191.

[12] Pope Benedict XVI, foreword to Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, trans. Adrian J. Walker (New York: Doubleday, 2007), xv.

[13] Aristotle, Rhetoric, referenced in John Dickson, Is Jesus History? (n.p.: Good Book Company, 2019), 28.

[14] Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means: An Enquiry into the Nature of Ideals and into the Methods Employed for Their Realization (New York: Harper, 1937), 312, 316. Paraphrased.

[15] See John 4:7–42.

[16] See 1 Corinthians 15:14–22.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.