Miracle Clothes That Changed History
By Dr. Peter Jones
There are two miracles associated with the life of Jesus, his birth and his resurrection. At Christmas we celebrate the miracle of his birth and at Easter the miracle of his resurrection, but they are related—in particular by clothes.
The Easter event was not the resuscitation of a corpse, as when Jesus raised Lazarus. This was certainly an amazing event but Lazarus subsequently died. Jesus raised him after the decaying process took over, restoring his flesh, yet they had to strip off his grave clothes. The text says: The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go” (Jn. 11:44). However, in the case of Jesus, something very different happened and it was shown in the case of the clothes around the body of Jesus. The Gospel of John, written by one of the eye-witnesses of the event, states: Then Simon Peter came, following him [John], and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself (Jn. 20:6-7). The verb translated “folded” here, in the two other times it is used, Matt 27:59 and Luke 23:53, speaks rather of being wrapped or rolled. “Folded” gives the impression that the resurrected Jesus got up, folded his clothes the way any well-brought-up adult would do, and then left the tomb in an appropriately tidy state. Actually, what Peter and John saw was the linen scarf that had been wrapped around the head of Jesus, (as in the case of Lazarus) lying apart, still wrapped or maintaining the rolled shape of the head of Jesus who was no longer there.
Since this is a Christmas letter, Christmas will help us. The blown-up, lit-up decorations we see in the evenings on the lawns of many houses end up in the morning lying flat with no air in them. That is what the disciples saw. The body had passed right through the clothes without disturbing them. Jesus did not need to be unbound. He passed right through them and left them empty. The miracle of Easter is not only the empty tomb but the empty grave clothes, and the transformation of Jesus’s earthy body into a glorious spiritual body is like the bodies we will get one day!
The miracle at Christmas was not in the clothes as such but in the fact that there was actually a baby in those swaddling clothes. This baby had no earthly, physical father. Babies do not come from nowhere so we are faced with the miracle of the Virgin Birth. Either Mary was an adulteress and Jesus was the illegitimate result of her sin or what Scripture says is true: The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God (Lk. 1:35). Just as Jesus was raised by the Spirit of holiness (Rom 1:4), he was also born by the Spirit of holiness in a miracle as comparable to that of his resurrection.
I gave myself a Christmas present this year. I re-read very carefully the impressive study on the virgin birth by J Gresham Machen, the father of modern Christian orthodoxy. At the beginning of the twentieth century as he fought liberalism in the mainline Church, and while he was engaged in the politics of maintaining the faith against the powerful bureaucracy of the Presbyterian church, and the powers of liberalism in Princeton Seminary, he was also a faithful and gifted scholar who defended true religion by serious scholarship. His study of 415 carefully argued pages, The Virgin Birth of Christ (Harper and Row, 1930), took on all the critical thinking in English, German and French, on this essential subject of the birth of Christ, showing that the supernatural explanation of the birth of Jesus is the only one that makes ultimate sense of the Gospel witness. I was impressed to note that the greatest liberal scholar of his day, the German Adolf Harnack actually twice cited Machen’s work. Machen shows that there was no early textual evidence that did not include the account of the virgin birth, and that the biblical doctrine of Christ’s sinless and atoning death cannot be maintained without the fact of the virgin birth. He states: “…the two elements of Christian truth belong logically together; the supernatural Person of our Lord belongs logically with his redemptive work: the virgin birth belongs logically with the cross” (p.391). In other words, there is no good news of redemption without the supernatural fact of the virgin birth.
Easter and Christmas do belong together. There is no hope of eternal life and the glorious hope of resurrection bodies that can pass through clothing and leave it undisturbed without the determination of the Creator of the universe not to abhor the virgin’s womb and willingly wear in humility the swaddling clothes of a baby in a feeding trough in a stable in the little town of Bethlehem and in that lowly body, bear our sins in our place.