When I started my Christian walk in 1976, I didn’t know anything about the Bible, the church or what it meant to be a Christian. I decided that someday I would write the kind of book that I wished someone had given me when I became a Christian, a book that answered questions like the following:
Why did the first-century church divide into Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant? How are they different from one another? Why are there so many different Protestant denominations?
What are the bottom-line Christian beliefs regarding God and Jesus, sin and salvation, grace and faith, and the end of the age and the life to come?
How does Christianity differ from Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and other world religions, and from Mormonism, the New Age and other non-Christian belief systems?
What does it mean to live as a Christian in the twenty-first century? Is there a Christian worldview? What is the role of prayer? What about evangelism?
This book attempts to answer these and other questions. The first five chapters have to do with the Bible, the Old Testament, the life and ministry of Jesus, the four gospels and the Pauline Epistles and other writings in the New Testament. The second five chapters have to do with the history of Christianity, Christian doctrines and beliefs, other religions and beliefs, growing in and sharing Christ and some guidelines for Christian living.
There was a lingua franca or common universal language, Greek, which made it possible for the Gospel to be preached everywhere in the Greco-Roman world, and a road system and safe sea routes, which allowed Paul, Barnabas and others easy access to important cities in the Mediterranean world.
There was a spiritual hunger for something other than Roman mythology and emperor worship. People wanted a faith that could give meaning and hope to life.
There was a growing, widespread belief in one God, partly as a result of the Diaspora, the dispersion of Jews who left Palestine following the fall of Jerusalem in 586 b.c. Wherever the Jews settled—more than one hundred fifty cities in the Roman Empire are known to have had synagogues in the first century—they witnessed to their faith in a single, supreme, sovereign God.
JOSEPH AND MARY
Joseph and Mary were the “parents” of Jesus. Joseph was his legal father and Mary his natural mother. We know very little about Joseph, other than that his ancestors were from the tribe of Judah (Matt. 1:1–2; Luke 3:33–34). He drops out of the picture after the story of Jesus in the temple when Jesus was twelve years old (Luke 2:41–52). Most scholars believe that Joseph died while Jesus was still in Nazareth. We also are not told much about Mary, other than that she was young, a virgin, the cousin of Elizabeth and that she found favor with God (Luke 1:28). By all accounts, she must have been a remarkable woman and mother. According to Roman Catholic teaching, Mary “was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin by the grace of God.” The doctrine of Immaculate Conception—which refers to Mary’s conception, not that of Jesus—is an attempt to explain how Jesus was born of a human without the taint of original sin.
To understand the birth narratives and the possible disgrace that Joseph and Mary faced as a result of Mary’s pregnancy, one needs to know something about marriage relationships in first-century Israel.
In ancient times, couples would enter into betrothals at very young ages because life-spans were short. Mary was probably thirteen or fourteen when she was betrothed to Joseph, much younger than the mature, matronly Mary we are used to seeing in Renaissance Christian art. The betrothal or engagement was entered into before witnesses and, for all intents and purposes, the betrothed couple was married. If one party died, the other was deemed a legal widow or widower. Until formally married, however, the bride and groom continued to live with their respective parents.
After a period of betrothal, usually one year, the couple would be married, sometimes in a lavish ceremony like the wedding at Cana (John 2:1–11). After the wedding, the bride left her parents and her husband assumed responsibility for her support.
Between betrothal and marriage, an angel came to Joseph in a dream in Matthew’s gospel, and to Mary in person in Luke’s gospel, to announce that Mary would conceive a son through the power of the Holy Spirit and that they were to “name him Jesus” (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:31), meaning “God saves” (us from our sins).
THE BIRTH NARRATIVES
Matthew’s birth narrative (1:18–2:18) is told from Joseph’s perspective. It contains the account of the “wise men from the East” who, led by the star of Bethlehem, come to pay homage to Jesus, after which the holy family takes refuge in Egypt. Luke’s narrative (1:26–38; 2:1–20) is told from Mary’s perspective. It contains the account of Augustus’s decree that those living in Roman provinces “should be registered,” which sends Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem (a five-day journey) where Jesus is born in a stable and is visited by shepherds.
Although the two accounts are different, it is not difficult to harmonize them. Take, for instance, the Annunciation (“announcement”) that Mary was to conceive a child through the agency of the Holy Spirit. The announcement comes to Mary in Luke’s gospel and to Joseph in Matthew’s gospel. Why two separate and different revelations? One explanation is that Mary did not want to tell Joseph of her pregnancy because they were not yet married. When Joseph found out, he made plans to break the engagement (see Matt. 1:19), but an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him that the child in Mary’s womb was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
The most striking thing about the two narratives is not their differences but their complete agreement on all essential points: the principal characters are Joseph and Mary; the revelations are made by an angel; conception takes place between betrothal and marriage (Mary’s virginity is emphasized in both accounts) and occurs through the agency of the Holy Spirit; the child’s name is to be Jesus; the birth takes place in Bethlehem during the latter years of the reign of Herod the Great; and the family settles in Nazareth. It is hard to imagine how these two accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth, with such important similarities, might have arisen if they were not true. The importance of the birth narratives, though, is not the details of Jesus’ birth but the inbreaking of God into human history.
Where did the material in the birth narratives come from? According to tradition, Mary, the mother of Jesus, died in the early 60s. If so, Luke, who tells us that he “investigated everything carefully” (Luke 1:3), would have had ample time to visit with Mary while he was in Caesarea during Paul’s imprisonment (c. 59–60).
WHEN WAS JESUS BORN?
We think of Jesus being born at the zero hour between b.c. and a.d. His birth, though, was much earlier, because he was born during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 b.c. and had earlier ordered all of the children in Bethlehem up to two years of age to be killed when he learned that Jesus had been born there. Most scholars believe that Jesus was born in 6 or 5 b.c. If so, Jesus lived approximately thirty-five years, because most scholars believe that he died in a.d. 30. The person responsible for the error in Jesus’ birth date was a sixth-century monk named Dionysius. He updated the calendar in 533 to shift the center of history from the founding of Rome in 753 b.c. to the birth of Christ. Unfortunately, he made a calculation error. Today, in many parts of the world, the terms b.c. (Before Christ) and a.d. (Anno Domini: “In the Year of our Lord”) are being replaced by b.c.e. (Before the Common Era) and c.e. (Common Era).
As for the celebration of Christmas, many suppose that Jesus’ birth may have been in the spring (shepherds and sheep in the fields, the wise men traveling to Jerusalem) rather than winter. Christians have been celebrating Christmas (“Christ’s Mass”) on December 25 since the year 336, when the emperor Constantine combined Christ’s birth with the celebration of the winter solstice, the day on which the sun is “reborn,” because Jesus was “the light of the world” (John 8:12). Epiphany, from a Greek word meaning “manifestation,” celebrates the presentation of Jesus to the wise men (or “magi”) who came to Bethlehem. Epiphany occurs twelve days after Christmas on January 6.
THE INCARNATION OF GODThe Christian faith rests on two key beliefs, one at the beginning of the Jesus story, the other at the end. The belief at the beginning is the Incarnation—God becoming incarnate in Jesus (John 1:14)—the merger of the divine and the human. The belief at the end of the story is the Resurrection, which confirms everything that Jesus said and did during his life, the most important being his saving death on the cross.
The story of the virginal conception of Jesus is about the incarnation of God in Jesus, not about the virgin birth of Jesus. The Incarnation distinguishes Christianity from Judaism and Islam, the other two monotheistic religions. Only Christianity believes that the eternal, transcendent God of the universe became incarnate in a human being, namely, Jesus of Nazareth.
Following his baptism and temptation, Jesus returns to Galilee, saying, “The time is fulfilled ... the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).
Jesus calls twelve disciples and begins his ministry, much of which occurs in and around Capernaum, a fishing village and commercial center on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, which became Jesus’ home after he was rejected at Nazareth (Luke 4:24–30). The people are amazed by Jesus’ teachings and healings, but don’t understand him to be the hoped-for Messiah.
Conflicts erupt between Jesus and the religious leaders having to do with Jesus’ association with sinners (tax collectors, lepers, the unclean), his nonobservance of certain Jewish rituals and his breaking of the Sabbath.
At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). Peter and the others, however, do not understand that Jesus’ messiahship means suffering and death, which is why they abandon him after his arrest: they think that he and his mission have failed. It is only after his resurrection that they understand.
After Peter’s confession, Jesus turns his attention from the crowds to his disciples to prepare them to take the good news to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Jesus predicts his suffering and death and then sets out for Jerusalem where he is betrayed, arrested, denied, tried, beaten, crucified and buried—and then raised from the dead to confirm that he was and is who the Gospels claim him to be: the only begotten Son of God.
The Handbook of the Christian Faith by John Schwarz
Copyright © 2004; ISBN 0764229060
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.