Not having been raised in any faith, I was completely ignorant of the Bible when, in my mid twenties, I decided to study it. I read it as a young lawyer with no settled preconceptions; it’s fair to say I was skeptical, but not close-minded.
It struck me then that the Bible is a story of the relationship between human beings and God. It is, if true, the redemptive history of the human race. The first part briefly describes the creation of mankind and his alienation from his Creator. The rest of the Bible — the vast majority of it — tells us how God fixed the relationship. That part of the story focuses first on a single man (Abraham), then on Abraham’s descendants, then on one particular descendant of Abraham, whose birth Christians celebrate today.
Jesus is the protagonist in the Biblical story, the mover, if you will, of the whole plot. He was introduced in his humanity as a baby in a manger. He lived only into young adulthood. He had none of what we would call today “credentials” — no social standing, no education, no wealth, no institutional power, and quite probably, nothing physically attractive about his person. For most of his life he rarely traveled outside of the obscure village where he was raised.
Yet for three years he also was a towering and masterful public figure — a king initiating an irresistible kingdom that was outside of, above, and yet in the kingdoms of the world.
His whole life during this period was a constant interaction with people of every kind in every kind of venue: crowds and individuals, followers and enemies, outcastes and upper class, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. The inherent authority of his words and his person constantly astonished the people he met. He dominated every encounter; he seized, and held, the frame of every conversation, directing it to his own purposes.
On the day Jesus died, he was brought before Pontius Pilate for judgment. Pilate assumed, naturally enough, that he — the Roman governor — was the master of the situation and that Jesus would be afraid of him. But by the end of their encounter, it was Pilate who was afraid, and Jesus who was the judge. This is their final exchange (John 19: 8–11):
When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”
Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”
Then there were the miracles, thousands of them. Again and again, Jesus effortlessly overturned the laws of the natural world. He calmed the storm, walked on water, created from nothing, healed instantly every kind of disease and deformity, and, in the final week of his life, raised a man from the dead — the episode that triggered his arrest and crucifixion.
These were all signs, designed to point everyone to Jesus, and through him to God. The God of the Old Testament was, on the surface at least, distant and foreboding. The Jews believed, and with reason, that anyone who saw their God face to face would die. But thousands of people saw Jesus, face to face. They touched him, talked with him, worked with him, laughed and cried with him. And they did not die; in fact, it was by looking to him that people lived.
He showed us in himself who God really is. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus was explaining to his closest friends what was going to happen the next day, teaching and comforting them, even though his own great Passion was only hours away.
One of his disciples urged Jesus to “show us the Father and that will be enough.” Jesus replied (and you can hear the weariness in his voice): “Phillip, have I been with you so long and you don’t know me? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14: 9)
It was this great character, exploding on the pages of the New Testament, who, more than anything else, drew me 35 years ago to the religion he founded. Jesus was and is a package of seeming contradictions: the man who is also God, the servant who is also king, the priest who is also the sacrifice, the savior who would not save himself, the one who died yet lived so that everyone who trusts in him, and will also die, will also live.
Yet the contradictions, I came to believe, are all true. His story is true, and he is true — just as it is also true that he is actually a living presence this Christmas morning, in the hearts and homes of his family around the world, who celebrate his birth.