The Mystery Behind the Manger
By David Feddes
What best-selling book pursues a mystery, explores long-hidden secrets, and reveals the truth about Jesus?
Many readers worldwide might answer: The Da Vinci Code—a novel that has sold millions of copies and made millions of dollars for author Dan Brown. Like any popular mystery, The Da Vinci Code offers many plot twists and secrets. The main mystery of the novel, the deepest secret it claims to reveal, is the secret of the real Jesus.
According to the novel, “almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is wrong.” When the mystery of Jesus is solved, it turns out that Jesus got married. He and his wife, Mary Magdalene, had children. These children were taken to France and became part of a royal line.
According to the novelist, Jesus was not really God come to earth as a human. Rather, church leaders made up the deity of Christ a few hundred years after Jesus died. These leaders wanted to increase their own power, so they declared Christ to be God and poured their efforts into hiding the real truth.
The Council of Nicea, meeting in 325, declared Jesus to be the only begotten Son of God, the second person of the divine Trinity. “Until that moment in history,” says the author of The Da Vinci Code, “Jesus was viewed by his followers as a mortal prophet… a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless.”
While Dan Brown’s mystery story has entertained millions of readers, it claims to be more than entertainment. The book claims, “All descriptions of … documents … in this novel are accurate.” But the novel contains many historical errors. The biggest errors involve who Jesus is and why Christians believe in him as God.
Brown claims that Jesus’ earliest followers saw him as a great man and only in later centuries did some people make up the idea that Jesus is God as well as man. But Brown has it backward: Jesus’ earliest friends and followers knew him as God as well as man, and they made this clear in the writings of the Bible. Only later did some renegade religions make up a different Jesus and write new stories which contradicted the original history recorded in the Bible and denied Jesus’ deity.
One good thing may come out of The Da Vinci Code’s popularity: more people may think harder about Jesus and wonder about his true identity. But if you truly want to explore the mystery of Jesus, you need a better guide than Dan Brown.
So let’s ask again: What best-selling book pursues a mystery, explores long-hidden secrets, and reveals the truth about Jesus? The answer is: the Bible, especially the fourth book of the New Testament, the gospel according to John.
A Trustworthy Source
John was Jesus’ closest friend, his dearest disciple. John was not a novelist eager to sell books and make money. John knew Jesus personally, loved him dearly, related to Jesus as God the Son, and wanted others to relate to Jesus as God the Son. John 20:31 explains the book’s main purpose: “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
Contrary to Dan Brown’s tall tales about Jesus in The Da Vinci Code, the earliest Christians, including Jesus’ closest friend, knew Jesus as the Son of God. When the Council of Nicea declared three centuries later that Jesus is God, it was not making up a new doctrine. It was restating what John and Jesus’ other friends, the authors of the New Testament, had been saying all along. The Council was reaffirming the deity of Jesus and the truth of the Trinity to counteract false ideas cooked up by a renegade religious leader named Arius.
It was not just the council of Nicea 300 years later which spoke of Jesus as God. All four gospels show Jesus saying what only God could say, doing what only God could do. In John’s gospel, it was an eyewitness to Jesus’ resurrection who called Jesus “My Lord and my God.”
If you don’t want to accept Jesus as God, you can always find a way out. You can reject the New Testament, and you can focus on counterfeit gospels and teachings written long afterward by people who abandoned the true faith. You can even dream up things on your own and write a novel, such as The Da Vinci Code. You can say whatever you want to say about Jesus—but that doesn’t change the truth.
The biblical truth about Mary Magdalene is that Jesus saved her from demons that possessed her. Mary loved Jesus as her Savior and friend, not as her husband. Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus alive after his resurrection, but she never had children with him. Meanwhile, the truth about Jesus is that he was and is God and man. If you’ve got your own agenda, you can make up any fiction you like. But Jesus doesn’t change with every heresy, and truth doesn’t change with every popular novel.
John is an author we can trust. John wrote a gospel account of Jesus life, and he wrote letters to encourage Christians and to refute false ideas about Jesus that were already being spread around at that time. In his first letter, John emphasized the difference between the phonies who never knew Jesus and his own firsthand connection with Christ. John wrote, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). John’s friend Peter made the same point: “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). The eyewitnesses were trustworthy people who spoke from firsthand experience. On top of that, they had God’s inspiration and guidance to make them totally trustworthy in everything they wrote about Jesus.
Word of God and Son of God
Novelists and scholars have sold a lot of books peddling the fiction of a secret Jesus the church wouldn’t tell us about. Well, the real Jesus is a mystery who remains unknown to many people. But don’t try to find the real Jesus by going against the Bible. Go into the Bible, and go on a journey to a mystery beyond anything you’ve ever seen or imagined.
The problem with skeptical scholars and fanciful novelists is not that they probe too much into the mystery of Jesus but that they don’t probe enough. The problem is not that they know too many secrets but that they close their eyes and plug their ears to the secret of the universe. The problem is not that they go back too far in history but that they don’t go back far enough. They claim to find the real Jesus back in a time before church councils were held, before doctrines were formulated. But John goes back a lot further than that to discover the ultimate mystery about Jesus.
John goes back to what he personally saw Jesus do and heard Jesus say, and he goes back even further. Guided by the Lord, John goes back farther than the oldest of histories and reveals the deepest of mysteries. John’s gospel starts by going back, back, back: back before the church defined any doctrines and creeds, before the New Testament was written. The gospel goes back before Jesus preached any sermons or performed any miracles, before Jesus was born in a manger, before Jesus was conceived in his mother Mary’s womb. The gospel goes back before the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus issued a decree that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, back before the founding of Rome. The gospel goes back before David ruled Israel, before Moses led slaves out of Egypt, before Abraham, before Noah. Back, back, back: before Adam and Eve or any human; before animals, birds, fish, or plants; before land or water; before earth or sky; before matter or energy; before any created thing; back, back, back through all ages to the very beginning. John’s gospel starts by saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1,14).
This Person called the Word had no beginning. There was never a time when he was not. At the very beginning of all things, when time and space came to be, the Word was already there. The Word never began; the Word simply was, is, and always will be, without beginning or end. This divine Person called the Word joined himself to a human nature and become known to us as Jesus. But the Word did not begin to exist when baby Jesus was born in the manger or when the baby was first conceived in Mary’s womb. That was the beginning of Jesus’ human life but not of his divine life. The divine Word had no beginning at all. This Person called the Word was with God before all ages, before all worlds. In fact, this person called the Word was himself God, and it was this God, this divine Person, who entered this world as the baby Jesus. The mystery behind the manger is this ever-living Word.
If you want to know what a baby is like before birth, a sonogram can show an ultrasound image of a baby in a womb. But if you want to know the truth of Jesus before he was born in the manger, you need more than a sonogram. You need to do more than look inside a womb. John’s gospel takes us beyond the womb, beyond the manger and the stable, beyond treetops, beyond mountains, beyond clouds, beyond moon, beyond sun, beyond all stars and galaxies, beyond the outer limits of outer space, to the Being beyond all being, to the mystery of God, and to the Person who is eternally the Word of God and the Son of God.
This Person did not become the Son of God when he became the Son of Mary. He was always God the Son, always with God the Father, always himself God, always of the same Being as the Father, always united to the Father in limitless love. Unlike the begetting of a human son, the begetting of the divine Son is not something that began at a point in time, and the Son did not start out as a tiny version of God and have to grow up in order to be the Father’s equal. The Son has always been “full-grown” deity, a perfect image of his Father, and his divine nature forever springs from the Father’s divine nature. When Jesus was born to Mary, it was not a matter of the Son starting to exist for the first time; it was a matter of God sending his eternally existing Son into this world to be born of a woman, joining a human nature to the divine nature which existed forever.
Scripture often calls Jesus the Son of God, but here at the beginning of John, it calls him the Word. When Christians talk about “the Word of God,” we often mean the Bible. Every word of Scripture is God-breathed, so it’s fitting to call the Bible “the Word of God.” But at the highest level, the Word of God is greater even than the Bible. The Word of God is more than a book of words from God in human language; the Word of God is an eternal, divine Person. The chief importance of the written Word, the Bible, is that it reveals the living Word, Jesus.
The living Word is God the Father’s expression of himself. This divine Word is not a sound or a set of syllables but the very mind, personality, and being of the Father, so real and alive that he himself is a Person alongside the Father. The Word is not sounds God made; the Word is God’s very personality and self-expression, springing from the Father and relating back to the Father in perfect love and harmony.
The Logic and Life of the Universe
This living Word—the Greek term is Logos—this Logos is the logic, the genius, which invented the pattern for the universe and brought it into being. The Word himself is without beginning; all created things began through him. John says, “He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men” (John 1:3-4). The Word has from the beginning been the Logic of the universe, the basis of its design, its purpose, its destiny. The Word has from the beginning been the Life of the universe, its energy, its enthusiasm, its beauty, its love, its everything.
The first verse of the Bible, Genesis 1:1, says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” How did God the Father create? By his Word. God said, “Let there be…” and the living Word made all kinds of things where before there had been nothing. Psalm 33:6 says, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made.”. Psalm 148:5 says, “He commanded and they were created.”
The ancient Greeks believed in one great mind and logic, a Logos that gave everything its form and pattern. The biblical Hebrews knew more: this universal wisdom was not just an abstract thing but was the Word of the Lord. John’s gospel goes even further to reveal that the creative Word of God is nothing less than the eternal Son of God. That’s the mystery behind the manger. All creation was made through him, so when creation needed saving, only its original source of being and life could save it. The divine Word, the second Person of the Godhead, would do this by becoming part of the creation himself in the person of the baby Jesus.
To appreciate the mystery behind the manger, don’t just admire Mary’s darling baby. Let it sink in who this baby really is. Scripture says, “He is the image of the invisible God… all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17). Let it sink in that all things, from angels down to insects, are formed according to his logic and get their life and being through him. Look at sunshine and starlight. Marvel at a seed becoming a plant or a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. Study the complex structure of crystals and snowflakes, of cells and molecules. Watch a deer leaping, a bird flying, a fish swimming, a baby sleeping, and know that the logic and life of every living thing comes from Christ the Word. The Father takes delight in all his works, and he takes supreme delight in his own Son through whom he made them all.
Born of God
All things were made through the Word, the Son of God who entered this world in human flesh as the baby Jesus. In Jesus’ divine nature is the wisdom and logic of the universe, and without him all is folly and confusion. In Jesus’ divine nature is the life of the universe, and without him all is death and decay. Jesus is the light of the world, and without him all is darkness. John’s gospel says,
“In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it…
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.
The Son of God has always been present in his creation, but after humanity disobeyed God and fell into sin, the world no longer recognized its own Creator. It’s not that God went away; people just became blind to the divine presence and made up all sorts of religions to suit themselves. As the light kept shining, the darkness could not understand it, but neither could the darkness overcome the light and put it out.
Out of all the dark world, God chose one particular people to deal with in a special way—the Israelite people. The Lord made covenants with them, sent prophets to them, and treated them as his very own. But when God the Son became flesh and came to his own chosen nation, even his own did not receive him. They despised and rejected him. The night he was born in Bethlehem, baby Jesus had to lie in a crib among animals because nobody would make room for him. Later Jesus would be tortured and crucified by the very people he had come to save.
But that’s not the whole story. After John tells how the world in general was blind to the Lord’s light and how his own people did not receive him when he came to them, John adds:
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (1:12-13)
Jesus alone is the eternally begotten Son of God, but in the mystery of his love, Jesus does not want to remain the only Son of God. He wants many people to be born of God, born from above by his life-giving power. Many have been born of God, and many are still being born of God. You too can be born of God and become a child of God. Just receive him. Believe in his name. Believe in the name of God the Son, the name of Jesus the eternal Word.
If you don’t fully understand everything I’ve said about Jesus’ divine nature, that’s okay. It’s a mystery that nobody can fully understand. If you don’t fully understand how receiving Christ can make you God’s child and give you birth into his life and light, that’s okay too. These mysteries are too much for any of us to understand fully, but they are not too much for us to receive and believe and delight in.
But be warned. There is no other way to God, no other way of salvation. Jesus is the Son of God, so if you reject him, the Father will reject you. Jesus is the living Word, the Logos, the wisdom and logic of creation, so if you reject him, you plunge into folly and meaninglessness. Jesus is heaven’s light and life, so apart from him there is only hell. Don’t complain that God should provide many ways to salvation besides Jesus. Jesus is salvation. Jesus is life. Jesus is light. Jesus is God. If a road leads anywhere besides Jesus, it doesn’t lead to God. The Lord cannot be other than he is. You must either receive him as he is, or not at all. Scripture says in no uncertain terms, “He who has the Son of God has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12).
After humanity had fallen, it was impossible for us to connect ourselves to the logic and life of the universe. We couldn’t rise up to him, so he came down to us. We couldn’t become like him, so he became like us. The ever-shining truth which we could not and would not grasp in our darkness came among us in flesh that any could see, speaking words that any could hear, doing wonders that any could admire. The boundless Life from which we separated ourselves plunged into our world of sin and death in order to save us.
Only Jesus is the eternal Word who was made flesh. Don’t argue against him. Instead, receive him and believe in him. Take to heart Jesus’ words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.