Alfred Place Baptist Church

1:34-35 The virgin birth of Christ (II)

Luke 1:34&35 “‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.’”

The whole world stand alongside the virgin Mary before the messenger of God asking the question, “How can this be? How can a virgin give birth to a baby boy?“ And one of the answers that God gives to her is that, “Nothing is impossible with God” (v.37). All your life your faith has to rest in what the King of kings does. Our trust in God, and Mary’s trust in God, is not ultimately in some capacity we have to understand all the things that happens to us, let alone everything that occurs in the world. You ask a preacher a question after a sermon and he gives some sort of answer but he can’t really satisfy your inquiring mind, and you can’t keep asking , “Yes, but . . . yes, but . . .” Mary says, “How can this be? How am I going to have this child? I’m a virgin.” And Gabriel says, “Well, here’s the answer, Mary, for you and the whole church from now on. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, and for that reason the offspring will be called the Son of God.” Men and women, that is a conversation stopper! Mary could have had more questions at the end of that answer than she had at the beginning! “Yes, but . . . wait a minute, Gabriel! Can we just work on each phrase of that answer?” Ultimately, though God’s word says, “Mary, here is the bottom line. Nothing is impossible with our God.”

It’s Mary’s ability to rest in the sovereignty of God, not Mary’s ability to understand every iota of what she is about to go through, that is at the heart of her living the Christian life. You see, it’s trust in the good, wise and sovereign – though often inscrutable – providence of God that is key to the Christian life. That’s what our friends who love the Lord Jesus Christ whose homes have been ruined by floods, or who are the parents of a kidnapped little girl, or who have lost a son in a road accident, are having to do right now: trust in the good and wise and sovereign and inscrutable providence of God. They learn to say by trusting daily in the Lord, “Life is hard, but God is good to us.” J.C. Ryle says: “Faith never rests so calmly and peacefully as when it lays its head on the pillow of God’s omnipotence.” When it realizes the sheer power of God, in God’s goodness and his wisdom and his kindness, faith is able to rest peacefully. Luke’s record of the angel’s message points us to an enormously important and practical pastoral truth: that the sovereignty of God is the key to living the Christian life. It’s not an abstract doctrine that only ivory tower theologians are to talk about in graduate school somewhere. It’s the most practical doctrine that you could ever imagine, and sometimes it’s all that we have to put one foot in front of the other: God is almighty, and he’s too wise to be mistaken; too good to be unkind; so when we don’t understand, he does, and he is in control.

What we meet at the opening of the life of Jesus Christ is something utterly miraculous, and that supernatural dimension is going to characterize our Lord throughout his life. I want to develop this by asking two questions:

1. WHERE DID THE MIRACULOUS LIE AT THE BIRTH OF CHRIST?

There was nothing miraculous in Mary presenting herself to God to be his servant. That is what every Christian woman does every day of her life. There was nothing miraculous in her presenting to God her life, her body, her womb, her egg. That is what every Christian young wife does and Mary was no more miraculous in saying to God, “Take my life . . . take my powers of conception and use them to your glory,” than any newly married woman says. There was nothing in the whole process of foetal and embryonic development of her child or in the emergence from the womb – what we refer to as the ‘birth’ of a baby – that was miraculous. That was as normal as any mother’s. We are told that the fulfilment of Mary’s days came and she gave birth to Jesus (Lk. 2:6). We would say that she went ‘full term.’

So the miraculous was in none of those things, but anyone who has seen a new born child is confronted with a breath-taking wonder. There was one Saturday night when Professor John Murray and my wife Iola discussed babies in the Manse. He had had his firstborn son Logan, and we had our second born daughter Catrin. They shared their wonder at holding their own child in their arms, the perfection of the tiny hand instinctively gripping your finger. “It is a miracle,” said Professor Murray, adding, “but not in the technical sense of the term.”

Let me remind you again of your own conception, and how Christ’s was just like it. “The single-celled embryo, at the moment of the fusion of egg and sperm, brings together two sets of genetic information from mother and father – in the form of the DNA code which, when spelt out letter by letter, would fill 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. These 24 volumes are packed into the nucleus of the cell, which is one-5,000th of a millimetre in diameter, which cell has the ability to replicate itself within a few hours and divide billions of times, eventually producing a fully formed human being.

“This trillion-times miniaturised, 24 Encyclopedia Britannica volumes’ worth of DNA information knows first how to ‘instruct’ the single-cell embryo to form the basic structure of the foetus with a back and front, head and limbs; and then to ‘instruct’ the cells to acquire the specialised function of a nerve or muscle or liver; and then ‘instruct’ them to link up together to form the metabolic factory of the liver or the pumping heart or the brain with its billions of connections; and then to ‘instruct’ them to grow synergistically through childhood and adolescence to adulthood.

“The extraordinary potential of the biological information locked in the nucleus of each and every cell can best be conceived of as the precise mirror image of the infinite size and grandeur of the universe” (Dr James Le Fanu, “The Miracle of Procreation,” Sunday Telegraph, December 19, 1999). In all of that, then, there was actually no miracle in the technical sense of the word. Christ’s conception was as extraordinarily normal as ours.

Where then does the supernatural lie in the birth of Christ? In three places:-

A. It was a Supernatural Begetting.

The Lord’s divine nature had no mother, and his human nature had no human father. Jesus was not conceived in the womb by the conjunction of male and female, by spermal communication from the man to the woman, as we all were. Jesus was begotten (rather than ‘conceived’) by the Holy Spirit, and the miraculous consisted in that fact. In the absence of male begetting, it was that divine overshadowing which made the birth a virgin birth. In this connection it is not strictly proper to say that Jesus was ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit’ (even though this is the phrase employed in the Apostles’ Creed). The phrase used of Mary’s conception (v.31) is repeated five verses later concerning Elizabeth conceiving John (v.36). But with Mary it was God the Holy Spirit who begat.

Now let us hear this observation: “The derivation from the substance of the Virgin means that she as mother contributed to him all that any human mother contributes to her child, sin excepted. Through the umbilical cord, he is this particular man, the son of this particular woman, the bearer of the whole previous genetic history of her people and the recipient of innumerable hereditary features. He was a unique genotype precisely because she contributed at least half his chromosomes (as any human mother would). How the rest was contributed remains a mystery. The one certainty is that Mary could not herself have contributed the sex-determining chromosome, Y, which is always provided by the biological father. This chromosome, at least, must have been provided miraculously; and it remains possible that all the chromosomes normally derived from the male parent were provided in this way, the divine act which fertilised the ovum simultaneously creating twenty-three chromosomes complementary to those derived from the mother” (Donald MacLeod, “The Person of Christ,” IVP, p.162). That is the miracle of the divine begetting of Jesus.

B. It was a Supernatural Person.

A virgin birth by itself does not mean an invariable incarnation. If God willed he could supernaturally beget a thousand babies. What was significant about this conception was that it was the second person of the godhead who was joined to the seed of the woman. He left his Father’s home above, so free, so infinite his grace. The Father and Son came together to the gates of heaven, and off the Son walked across the clouds as his Father lovingly waved him good-bye. His destination was the virgin betrothed to Joseph. What was special about the baby which Mary bore was this, that she came to carry “the eternal Son of God in respect of his human nature. He was begotten of the Spirit and conceived by the virgin in human nature. The most stupendous fact of all is that this was the begetting, conception, embryonic development, and birth of a supernatural person. Because of this there was no point at which the supernatural was not present. The incarnation was supernatural through and through, because at no point was the supernatural identity of the person suspended.” (John Murray).

Who is he in yonder stall at whose feet the shepherds fall?
Tis the Lord, O wondrous story, Tis the Lord, the King of glory.

There was no diminishing of the One who was in the beginning, who was with God and who was God. There is no transmutation, and no divestiture. When the apostle John says that they beheld him then it was the glory of the only-begotten of the Father that they were surveying, in other words, he says, Jesus of Nazareth was, “God only-begotten who is in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18). That very same Son of God, divested of none of his divinity, was soon lying in the bosom of Mary in the stable of Bethlehem – “God only-begotten.” She could have said the same words as John later used, “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. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (I Jn. 1:1-3).

So the incarnation meant addition not subtraction. God the Son, remaining the immutable second person of the godhead, has now joined to himself the human nature of one particular man, the true biological son of Mary, who later took as her husband a carpenter, and they lived in Nazareth, in whose home the God-man, Christ-Jesus, grew in wisdom and stature, in favour with God and man. David cries, “But will God really dwell on earth with men?” (2 Chron. 6:18), and Gabriel cries, “Yes!” What a vast wonder! O miracle of miracles! Here in the womb of Mary is framed a soul and body which will be the everlasting rest and the home of God himself. Here is man! Here is God! And there is no impairment whatsoever of the fulness of the divine or the human in him.

C. It was a Supernatural Preservation.

There was such a preservation at the end of his life when his body lay in the grave, but God would not allow his Holy Child Jesus to putrefy. There was the alarm of Mary and Martha at the opening of the tomb of their brother after three days, that his body would be stinking. But there was an intervention of God concerning the corpse of Jesus. The tomb was new and clean so there was no old stink of death and no new stench; it was a fine pure mausoleum for the Prince of Life. Thus it was at the end and so too when he lay in the womb of Mary, our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man, tinier than a full stop, then, when all other men must say, “In sin did my mother conceive me . . . I was born in sin and shapen in iniquity,” he could never say those words, even as no day ended with any need for Jesus to confess the sins of that day to God.

In other words, at Jesus’ conception there was somehow a preservation from any taint of sin, from that contamination that would have otherwise proceeded from Mary. His was a humanness without sin. His was not a humanness without temptation, nor a humanness lived out in a sanitized spiritual environment, but from his conception there was no prenatal sin – whatever that may be – and thenceforth, after his first breath, no propensity to sin, no affinity with sin, and no stain of sin ever upon him, though he were bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh. He was the Word of God who had become the Lamb of God without spot and without blemish. The little Lord Jesus no crying he made, that is, no crying which was characterised by petulance and anger and greed and attention-seeking and boredom and pride – as every other baby occasionally cries. He was not like any other baby.

2. WHERE DID THE MIRACULOUS LIE IN THE LIFE OF CHRIST?

The modernists have claimed that begetting Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit in the virgin Mary is unessential in the doctrine of the incarnation. They hold to the doctrine of adoptionism, that Joseph and Mary had a baby together and God adopted the child as his Son. The words of Gabriel and the teaching of the gospels do not support the theory. In answer to the question, how can a virgin possibly conceive, the messenger of God says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, so the child to be born will be called the Son of God.” Jesus can be called Son of God precisely because he was begotten by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Only thus does all the fullness of deity dwell bodily in Jesus (Colossians 2:9). It is fitting and necessary that the entrance gate to this mystery of incarnation should be the virgin birth.

It is necessary for us to remember that the Lord Jesus Christ was one person. He never said, “Verily, verily we say unto you.” He is only, and eternally, the great I AM, never the great ‘we are.’ Whatever he did throughout his life was done by that one person who is Son of God. He made the world, and he upholds the world, and he was crucified in weakness on the cross. A nature did not do it. He did it. He bled and died to take away my sin. The human never existed independently of the divine, and from that time and for evermore the divine will never exist without the human, and yet the divine nature was never be lost or compromised by this union. In other words, all the qualities and powers that are in us (sin excepted), as well as all the qualities and powers that are in God, were, are, and ever will be really and distinguishably present in the one person of the man from Galilee.

J.I.Packer says, “The idea that Jesus’ two natures were like alternating electrical circuits, so that sometimes he acted in his humanity and sometimes in his divinity, is quite mistaken. He did everything, and endured everything, including his sufferings on the cross, in the unity of his divine-human person” (J.I.Packer, “Concise Theology” IVP, 1993, p.109).

The Christian always returns to the definitive statement of Chalcedon. In the fifth century there was a battle with error going on in the church, as there generally is. There were the Nestorians who were teaching that Jesus had two personalities – the Son of God and a man – under one skin. There were also the Eutychians who were teaching that Jesus’ divinity had swallowed up his humanity. And there were the Apollinarians who taught that the one person of Christ had a human body but not a human mind or spirit, but that the mind and spirit of Christ were from the divine nature of the Son of God. We occasionally come across these views in the New Age-charismatic blend of strange religions spreading through the world today.

So the church leaders gathered together in what is today a part of Istanbul in Turkey, and I understand that there is a library on the site of the Council of Chalcedon and I have been told that an evangelical church is now holding its meetings there. I would like to believe that that were true. But then, in the year 451, that Council came up with a splendid ‘formula’ which contains four famous Greek adverbs. They acknowledge the God-man to be in two natures, “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” In other words the two natures weren’t, [a] put into a blender in the womb of Mary and confused. Neither were [b] the divine and the human changed one iota from being divine or from being human. [c] The God-man was not schizophrenic in a personality division, oscillating from the one to the other. [d] But the two natures were eternally inseparable from the moment of conception for evermore – “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” It has often been said that if you choose to move beyond the borders of Chalcedon you have decided to choose a heresy.

Or think of the way that the natures of Christ are summed up in Chapter Eight of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: “the two whole, perfect and distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion.” [a] There is no conversion. The divine is not changed into the human, nor accommodated to the human, nor is the human transmuted into the divine. [b] There is no composition. The divine and human do not coalesce so as to form a third. [c] There is no confusion. The natures are not mixed: there is no blending.

Wales has been utterly Chalcedonian in its theology, the Celtic Church, the pre-Reformation Church, the Reformed churches, the 1823 Confession; its piety and its praying all reflect that. There is a hymn of Ann Griffiths, and in its first verse you find the Formula of Chalcedon turned into doxology. It’s the hymn, ‘O am gael ffydd i edrych,’ and in the first verse she is praying for the faith to see this:-

‘Two natures in one Person,
Conjoined inseparably,
Distinct and not confounded,
In perfect unity.’

That’s Chalcedon. She wasn’t writing ditties was she? Dr Lloyd-Jones in Volume One of his Great Doctrine series in his lecture on the ‘God-Man: The Doctrine’ quotes the entire Chalcedon formula, and then he looks up and characteristically says to the Friday night congregation at Westminster Chapel these words, “What a glorious, what a magnificent statement! We rather tend to think, do we not – at least some people do today – that we have advanced a great deal since the fifth century; we are the wonderful people of the twentieth century! Yet that is the sort of thing they taught to Christian people in the fifth century. I hope we all appreciate it! Christian people lacking all our educational facilities and advantages were given truth like that . . . Get it and read it for yourselves. Notice that its emphasis is this: one person, the two natures unmixed, joined but not mixed, not fused, not intermingled, remaining separate, God and man” (D.M.Lloyd – Jones, “God The Father, God the Son”, Hodder & Stoughton, 1996, p.282).

These great confessions are saying that there was in Christ a total consciousness of his divine identity, and there was an equally total consciousness of his human identity, but there was only one self-consciousness. He can never speak as a purely human personality. He never says, for example, “as a man I have mortality written over me and I am to die.” He must speak of death as the God-man would speak of death, and so he acknowledges that he is indeed going to die, but he views death like this, “No man takes my life from me. I have power to lay it down and I have power to raise it again.” That is his singular self-consciousness as the God-man speaking.

Again, anything that is true of the human nature of Christ is true of the person of Christ. Anything that is true of the divine nature of Christ is true of the person of Christ. For example, Christ says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” He doesn’t say, “Before Abraham was, my divine nature existed.” On the cross he cries, “I thirst!” He does not cry, “My human nature thirsts.” Always it is the one person of Christ who speaks.

Wayne Grudem says, “In the human sphere, this is certainly true of our conversation as well. If I type a letter, even though my feet and toes had nothing to do with typing the letter, I do not tell people, ‘My fingers typed a letter and my toes had nothing to do with it’ (though that is true). Rather, I tell people, ‘I typed a letter.’ That is true because anything that is done by one part of me is done by me” (Wayne Grudem, “Systematic Theology”, IVP, 1994, p.562).

So Christ says both “I am leaving the world” and he also says the very opposite, “I am with you always” and it is correct for the God-man to make both of those statements because both are true. Anything done by one nature or the other is done by the person of Christ.

Of course he speaks as a human and is intensely aware of his human identity, and then he also speaks as the Son of God who sustains to the Father a unique relationship. And it is clear that when he is most aware of his humanity and weakness, then, on those occasions, he is also most conscious of his relationship with his Father. He can cry, “I thirst” and then within a moment cry, “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit.” When he is most intensely human the consciousness of his divinity is also instantly evidenced. It is a step from this Man’s bloody sweat in Gethsemane to standing erect and saying to the soldiers “I am.”

So we must say that there are two wills in Christ, and two centres of consciousness, human and divine, but only one self-consciousness. And this Christ is offering himself, and giving himself without spot on Golgotha. The divine is not offering the human nature. The spirit is not offering the body. The sufferings are not being offered. He is sacrificing himself to God on our behalf.

So he is God and he is man. As God he has not emptied himself of any select attributes. That’s not simply a view popular a century ago even in conservative men like A.B.Bruce and Godet, and later by men so revered in our Welsh theological colleges as a liberal Methodist like Vincent Taylor, but what Millard Erickson is arguing today in his 1984 Baker Book House “Christian Theology,” that in the incarnation the Son of God has accepted certain limitations on the functioning of his divine attributes, for example, Millard says that Christ laid aside his omnipresence. That means that there would be have been parts of the universe where God in Christ was not, indeed all of the universe apart from the specific place in Israel where the Lord Christ happened to be.

We simply ask the question how would God do that? How would it be possible for God selectively to separate his attributes from his very being? One may take a pin or two out of a pin cushion and still have a pin cushion, but can a divine attribute be removed and God still be God? The divine essence is the sum total of his attributes. It is more than that, yes, but it is certainly not less. If the Son of God disrobed himself of one or two attributes when he became incarnate, then, while he would still be more than mere man, he wouldn’t be altogether God. A God who is not at all present in certain locations is not God. A Saviour who is not quite God is a bridge that doesn’t quite reach the other end of the abyss. When you look at the New Testament you find the Lord speaking of his omnipresence and saying, that the one who came from heaven is the Son of Man who is in heaven. He says, “Where two or three gather together in my name there I am.” He filled all creation as God even while he was filling, as an unborn babe, the womb of Mary.

Of course, as man he was not, nor ever will be, omnipresent, nor omniscient, nor infinite. He was true man. But as God he possessed all the divine attributes. Thus the God-man, Christ Jesus, was everywhere and almighty and eternal and unchangeable.

So he was God and he was man. And there are miracles which are only explicable because he is God, and there are prayers and tears and dying which are only explicable because he is man. Then we can say that the man Christ Jesus could, when God willed, draw on divine resources to transcend human limits of energy and knowledge. And we can say that the Lord’s divine nature would contribute power and insight to his human nature. And we can also can say that the Lord’s human nature contributes the experience of the state of humiliation to the divine. There is a difference between a midwife knowing all about childbirth from the most exhaustive study, and observation of children being born, and she herself actually giving birth. There is a great difference between ourselves visiting the beds of the dying and actually tasting death for ourselves. The incarnation brings human experience into the deity of love for ever. The God man tasted death for every man. He will never lose the knowledge of that taste.

Application

And the application of all this? Think of Paul’s problems in the Philippian congregation, vainglory and the failure of Christian liberality, and as he wrestles with them he has recourse to the massive theological statement of Philippians 2. You have these practical problems, and the answer is theological. Remember your theology and place your behaviour in the light of that theology. We ourselves in our own Christian callings are to be conscious of this. We must never leave the doctrine of the Trinity or of the Incarnation hanging in the air. There is application. We must not hesitate to enforce the most elementary Christian obligations with the most sublime doctrines.

Christ’s self humiliation means that all his people must be mutually submissive to one another. I dare not insist on my rights because my Lord himself refused to do that. I cannot refuse to be a servant among my brothers and sisters because Jehovah Jesus became a servant. I cannot forego humiliation and loss because he did not. So we are to be of the same mind, having the same love, in full accord and of one mind. We refuse to look to our own interests, but we are anxious for the interests of others. Costly love. Servant love.

21st century Wales has to see that quality of life and love in the Christian community. When Augustine was asked to list the central principles of the Christian life he replied, “First, humility. Second, humility. Third, humility.” A humble minister is a mighty weapon in the hands of Jehovah Jesus, the servant Son of God.

8th July 2007 GEOFF THOMAS