Born of the Virgin Mary

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 1:18-23

A lot of people today approach their religious faith the way an adventurous cook operates in the kitchen – with a strong desire to experiment and come up with a unique personal recipe. But Christians are not free to make up their own beliefs. We have a creed. We confess a faith that is held in common by all true Christians of all times and places. David Bast explores this common faith in a series of programs based on the Apostles’ Creed entitled “What We Believe.”

Matthew begins his Gospel, his account of the life and work of Jesus Christ, with a carefully detailed genealogy, the purpose of which is to demonstrate that Jesus was the Son of David and therefore Israel’s hoped-for Messiah. But David was not Jesus’ only father. There is, so to speak, another side to his family tree, as Matthew goes on to describe.

Now the birth Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).

Matthew 1:18-23

Conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary

Matthew starts in a very matter-of-fact fashion to tell about an event that is utterly astonishing. “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about,” he says, and then, without any further preamble or explanation, he says that Jesus had no human father. Mary was his mother, but she conceived and gave birth by the power of the Holy Spirit, entirely apart from any contact with a man.

This event, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, is presented in the Bible as a simple fact. Though Mary and Joseph were pledged to be married, Mary was discovered to be pregnant “before they came together,” as Matthew writes. And later the point is repeated for emphasis: Joseph “had no union with” (v.25) Mary until after she had given birth. And notice also Joseph’s very normal and understandable reaction to the news of his fiancee’s condition. He knew he couldn’t be the father, so he drew the only possible conclusion a man could under the circumstances: Mary must have been unfaithful to him. And since Joseph loved her and was a good and righteous man (v. 19), he resolved to divorce Mary quietly rather than to press for the full penalty of the Law against adultery. It took an angel’s statement to him in a dream to convince Joseph of the truth.

Skeptics sometimes say that the story of Jesus’ virgin birth was accepted because back in ancient times people had a primitive world-view. They could believe in something like a virgin birth because they were scientifically ignorant. Stories of miraculous events are only believable among those who don’t really know how the world works, but we who live in a modern, scientific age are too intelligent and sophisticated to accept such myths. At least, that’s how the logic goes.

But it’s clear from the gospel narrative that Joseph and Mary understood perfectly well where babies come from. The virgin birth was just as hard to imagine for people in the first century as it is for people in the twenty-first century. This is no myth made up in order to lend a supernatural aura to Jesus. It’s not a fantastic tale inserted into the New Testament record by a gullible early church in order to enhance Jesus’ stature. No, this is simply how his human life actually began. This is the historical record of his birth. It happened at a definite time and place. It happened to particular people, people with names and families – a carpenter named Joseph, a girl called Mary. It happened in a specific way. Before they ever came together, the girl became a mother. Her baby was born with the same joy and the same pain of all the other billions of births that have happened since the world began. Yet the mother remained a virgin. That’s just how it was.

God Incarnate

But the virgin birth is more than merely a fact of history. We need to get beyond the fact that it happened in order to discern what this miracle means. The reason we confess in our creed that we believe in Jesus “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary” is because this miracle points directly to the greater miracle of the incarnation, literally, the “enfleshment” of God. That’s why orthodox Christians long ago made Jesus’ Spirit-conceived, virgin-born origin an article of our faith. The virgin birth, we believe, is a sign pointing to Christ’s unique nature. He is the God-Man, God incarnate, God made flesh, perfect humanity and perfect deity united in one single person. The incarnation does not mean that in Jesus God was pretending to be a man, or that he had merely the appearance of being human – that he was human on the outside but God on the inside. No, it means that in Jesus the real God became a real man. He really and truly assumed our human nature, our flesh and blood, our body and soul. Thus the ancient church rightly ascribed to Mary the title Theotokos, literally, “the God-bearer.” Mary is not just the mother of Jesus, she is the Mother of God. In John Donne’s beautiful phrase, she is:

[her] Maker’s maker, and her Father’s mother.

This is the greatest of the mysteries of our faith. Listen to how theologian J. I. Packer describes it.

It is here, in the thing that happened at the first Christmas, that the profoundest and most unfathomable depths of the Christian revelation lie. “The Word was made flesh;” God became man; the divine Son became a Jew; the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child. And there was no illusion or deception in this: the babyhood of the Son of God was a reality. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as this truth of the incarnation.

from Knowing God

As to the mechanics of the incarnation, the “how” of it all, we are not told. Matthew says simply that Mary “was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” So biblical Christians will prefer to keep a reverent silence about the details. That it is a marvelous sign we unhesitatingly affirm. That it signifies the mystery that Jesus is God in the flesh we joyfully confess. With ancient shepherds and wisemen we bow before the wonder of our God lying in a manger.

Immanuel

But what does it mean in practical terms that Jesus is God-in the-flesh? Does this make any difference to you and me as we go about our lives? It makes literally all the difference, both in this world and the world to come. Do you know this verse from the Christian hymn “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”?

Veil’d in flesh, the Godhead see,
Hail th’ incarnate Deity –
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel.

“Jesus, our Immanuel” – that says all we really need to know. Matthew tells us that the true meaning of the sign of Jesus’ virgin birth is summed up in this one Hebrew word. It was a fulfilment of the ancient prophecy in the book of Isaiah: “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means [as Matthew helpfully translates into Greek] ‘God with us)'” (Matthew 1:23).

The fact that Jesus is God in human flesh means that God is with us in a way far more profound than any of us can imagine. Jesus truly and fully is our Immanuel. Listen to what the great John Calvin says about that word Immanuel:

We must not forget the fruit which God intended that we should collect and receive from this name. For whenever we contemplate the one person of Christ as God and man, we ought to hold it for certain that if we are united to Christ by faith, we possess God.

(John Calvin)

Isn’t that astonishing? When you believe in Jesus Christ, you possess God! If you know Christ, then you know that God is with you in every situation, no matter how difficult. He understands every problem and hurt you have, however painful. If God is truly with you, what else can matter?

In the Chinese province of Guangzhou the Christians, even though they are very poor and often harassed or even persecuted because they are followers of Jesus, are nevertheless full of joy. They have a special way of bearing a kind of public witness to their faith. On tiles which are set into the wall above the doors of their houses they paint a single word in Chinese, the Chinese characters that translate the word Immanuel. Why? Because they know that since Jesus came into their lives, God is with them. And God is with us too when we know him, when we believe in him, when we put all of our faith and trust in him. And if God is with us, he is also for us; and if God is for us, who can be against us?