Virgin Birth: H.C. Lord's Day 14

Q 35. What does it mean that he “was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary”?
A 35. That the eternal Son of God, who is and remains true and eternal God, took to himself, through the working of the Holy Spirit, from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary, a truly human nature so that he might also become David’s true descendant, like his brothers and sisters in every way except for sin.

Q 36. How does the holy conception and birth of Christ benefit you?
A 36. He is our mediator and, in God’s sight, he covers with his innocence and perfect holiness my sinfulness in which I was conceived.

For practically all of the 2,000 years of Christianity’s existence, following the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the theological concept of the Virgin Birth has been an essential element of its faith and belief structure.  Recently, however, this Biblically founded and theologically assumed element of Jesus’ life has been called into question from both forces on the outside and some on the inside as well.

The question of this vital theological element has taken two main paths.  First, those who are deemed as scholars (and I am not calling into question their credentials) have looked at the Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7, the passage seen as the prophetic telling of the Messiah’s virgin birth (or rather, virgin conception) and pointed to the fact that the word has a much wider meaning than just “virgin.”  Even though every other Biblical use of that word clearly points to the aspect of virginity in a young woman, the range of the word’s meaning could be considered questionable.  The Greek translation of the Old Testament makes clear the intention of Isaiah’s word choice, however the original Hebrew gives cause for question, according to some.

Second, and perhaps a much more insidious line of thinking, is the question posed by Rob Bell, once pastor of Mars Hill Church and author of the book Velvet Elvis.  He asks,

What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus has a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births?

He then goes on to say,

I affirm the historic Christian faith, which includes the virgin birth and the Trinity and the inspiration of the Bible and much more. . . 

But if the whole faith falls apart when we reexamine and rethink one spring, then it wasn’t that strong in the first place, was it? (Velvet Elvis, 26-27)

Now, first of all, it is important to note that, while there are a few religions and traditions that include the myth of a virgin birth in their stories, none of them actually include real virgins (or people for that matter) and all of them came into being after the founding and subsequent expansion of the Christian faith.  It is also important to point out that, no matter what element of doctrine or theology is examined or questioned, the existence of the Christian faith, Christ’s Church, or the love and grace of God does not find its strength or life in mere humans but instead comes solely from its source: God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

So, does that mean that the Virgin Conception of Jesus is not important?  By no means!  It is absolutely important and vital to our understanding of who Jesus is.  Apart from the fact that this doctrine has been a part of the Christian Church for the whole of its existence, the entire principle of the dual nature of Christ, that He is both fully Divine and fully human, finds its reality here.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God our Lord, cannot be the product of human conception.  If he were, He would not be the Son of God, but rather the son of someone else.

While Scripture doesn’t go into detail about the physical reality of Jesus conception, we know that the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, and that the human life that was and is Jesus of Nazareth came into being through that event.  The implication of this is that, while Jesus is indeed fully human, being born of a human woman (rather than just appearing at some point out of thin air) and living a human life, He did not inherit the natural sinful nature that comes with being human.  This is not to suggest that it is the Man’s fault that everyone in the world sins, but rather a general understanding that God’s action here made the incarnation, the literal putting on of flesh of the Second Person of the Trinity, possible.

At its core, the issue at stake here is Salvation.  Is salvation possible without the virgin birth?  The answer, I think, is no… at least not as we understand it.  As we have talked about several times in our study of the Heidelberg Catechism, and as we will see again in the coming weeks, Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, must be both fully human and fully Divine.  Jesus Christ must be human because a human sacrifice was necessary for the forgiveness of human sins.  Jesus’ human mother and human birth grants Him that.  Jesus must also be Divine because no human could shoulder the burden that is the wrath of God’s punishment of sin.  The virgin conception through the work of the Holy Spirit grants Jesus His full Divinity.  Without Jesus being fully human, salvation itself falls apart.  Without Jesus being fully Divine, His ability to save us from the punishment our sins deserve ceases to exist.

So, is the Virgin Conception of Jesus important?  Yes.  It is vital.

Conceived: H.C. Question 36

How does the holy conception and birth of Christ benefit you?

1 Timothy 2:5-6 – For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time.

Hebrews 9:13-15 – The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.

Romans 8:3-4 – For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

2 Corinthians 5:21 – God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Galatians 4:4-5 – But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.

1 Peter 1:18-19 – For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.

Incarnation: H.C. Question 35

What does it mean that he “was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary”?

John 1:1, 14 – 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. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 10:30-36 – I and the Father are one.”

Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”

“We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside— what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?

Colossians 1:15-17 – The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

1 John 5:20 – We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

Luke 1:35 – The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on 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.

Matthew 1:18-23 – This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

Galatians 4:4 – But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,

Hebrews 2:14 – Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—

2 Samuel 7:12-16 – When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.’”

Psalm 132:11 – The Lord swore an oath to David, a sure oath he will not revoke: “One of your own descendants I will place on your throne.

Matthew 1:1 – This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham:

Romans 1:3 – regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David,

Philippians 2:7 – rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

Hebrews 2:17 – For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.

Hebrews 4:15 – For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

Hebrews 7:26-27 – Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.

1 John 4 – Don't Deny

Read 1 John 4

John continues to talk about love in this chapter, something that we could never really say enough about.  God’s love, shown by Him and reflected in us is such a vital part of who we are in Christ and how we come to be just that.  John’s words on this could go on forever.

He also briefly talks here about the ability to recognize the Spirit of God in those around us.  This is also an important thing for us to think about especially in the current culture that would seek to offer us “pseudo-Christian” teachings that do not necessarily jive with Scripture.  How can we know that these things are “of God”?  John points out that any teaching that claims to be Christian in nature, any teaching or spirit that claims to be of the Bible, will first and foremost acknowledge the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

What does this mean?  For starters, it means that it will be in line with Jesus, His life, death, resurrection, and teaching.  In other words: It will match up with “The Word” as John refers to Him as.  Jesus Himself is the Word of God made flesh, the fulfillment of all that Scripture says.  Therefore, any and all teachings that are of God will acknowledge Jesus as Lord first and foremost.

There are a number of religious groups that claim the “Christian” title but don’t do this.  Their messages sound good, their church buildings look spectacular, and their message is often well disguised to motivate and uplift their listeners.  However, it is not of God.

Once again, John is warning his readers that they need to be clear on who and what they are loving.  Messages that are meant to make us feel good but don’t acknowledge Jesus as Lord (or our sin for that matter) are ultimately self-serving and betrays us to the sin of idolatry of self.

1 John 1 – Life and Light

Read 1 John 1

The Apostle John opens His Gospel talking about the incarnation of Christ as the theological foundation that supports the rest of his book.  He says there, of Jesus, “In Him was life, and that light was the light of mankind.”

John opens his first letter, though not in letter format, with the very same themes.  Jesus is the incarnation of God in human flesh and He, being the very Word of God, brought with and in Him life.  The life that Jesus brought, that He offers to us, is also the invitation to have fellowship with God, to be in a relationship with Him.

He then continues into a practical application of what this means as we live into this in the life of faith.  Once again, John uses the contrast of light and darkness to describe those who follow Christ, the light of the world, and those who don’t.

There is a very important theological principle that is hidden in this first chapter.  We often talk about the Gospel message and the “Good News” of Jesus Christ as being all about grace and being saved from our sins and this is entirely true.  Yet to be saved from anything, there needs to be an acknowledgment of the need for saving.  In John’s words here, if we say that we are without sin, we are deceiving ourselves and we continue to walk in darkness.

In Jesus Christ, God brings light, life, and salvation into the world, redeeming and restoring our ability to live in relationship with Him.  Jesus is the only way that this could happen; there is no way we can save ourselves.  So, while we rightly emphasize the grace of God, the only way that this grace is important is because of the sin we find ourselves in.  John says that if claim that we have not sinned, we make a liar out of God.  In reality, we know full well of our depravity and when we acknowledge that, as uncomfortable as it may be, we can embrace the saving grace of Jesus Christ and live true life, in true light and freedom.

John 14 – The Only Way

Read John 14

In the last several decades there has been a considerable push towards “tolerance” in society.  As western culture moves away from Christianity, much effort has been made to move everyone towards an ideal that says “all roads lead to God.”  Whatever you believe, if you follow it with a true heart, you will reach some sort of “greater” being at life’s end.

Christians especially have been targeted in this, being called  “intolerant” for claiming to have the only way to God and Heaven.  The ridiculousness of targeting one of the world’s three major religions (all claim to possess the only way to God) notwithstanding, what Jesus says here not only predicts that this will happen, it speaks to the truest and deepest nature of who Jesus is.

While this conversation, this I AM statement, may seem like one among many, it really is a focal point in Jesus’ claim of who He is.  Making the statement “I AM” in the way that He does is a claim that He is God, yet here Jesus amplifies it by making sure His disciples know exactly what that means.  Only through belief in Him (because He is God) can one find the path to God.

No one else, in any religion, can make this claim.  God became human to create a way, the only way for humans to have a relationship with God.  His claim is exclusive, even if society and culture frown upon such exclusivity.

Does believing that Jesus is the only way to God make us intolerant?  No.  Trying to force someone to renounce their beliefs because you don’t like them does.  It seems culture doesn’t like to follow its own claims of tolerance when it comes to Christianity.  This, however, does not change our calling… or our faith.

Day 307: John 1-3; Introduction to and Prologue of John

Today we come to the Gospel of John, the fourth and final Gospel in the New Testament.  John’s Gospel was the last of the four that were written and is not considered to be one of the “synoptic Gospels.”  Much of what is written in John is unique from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and doesn’t follow in the same order as them.  This is not to say that the Gospel of John is in some way, incorrect, but instead takes yet another perspective of Jesus life from presumably one of His closest disciples.  John is writing in an effort to prove once and for all that Jesus the Divine Son of God.  Not only that though, John sought to show His readers, which were likely some of the Church’s that are mentioned at the beginning of the book of Revelation, that Jesus was indeed God almighty as well, the creator of the world who took on human flesh and ultimately sacrificed Himself for the salvation of His beloved children, and ultimately all of creation.

John begins his writing with a beautiful prologue that we have the opportunity to read today.  It is one of the most theologically rich writings in all of Scripture if you ask me.  In some ways, it is a genius move on John’s part, starting with the main point of His writing, almost as a theological plateau or mountain top from which we can look down and survey the whole of the rest of the Gospel (and most of Scripture too actually).  To be honest, I think we could spend a month talking through the prologue of John, and then venture carefully into the rest of His writing, however we aren’t given that amount of time.  So instead we will indeed use this scripture as the point from which we look out over the whole of the next 9 day’s readings, always keeping in mind the dual nature of Jesus on earth.  He is both fully human and fully Divine!  Too often we tend to divide up God and we forget that though we have a Triune God with three persons, Father, Son and Spirit, God is also one and Jesus being God means that God came here to earth and took on human flesh.

The book of John is divided up into two different sections after this first chapter: the Book of Signs and the Book of Glory.  In the first half of the Gospel of John, we specifically see a focus on Jesus’ miracles, in (arguably) seven signs, which are Jesus’ miracles, that are performed as John establishes Jesus Divinity in human form.  We see clearly that Jesus, though a man, has divine abilities and powers over creation.  In some ways, Jesus is also “recreating” many things, showing the true nature of creation and the Kingdom of God in small but important ways.  The wedding of Cana, which is Jesus’ first sign is one of these miracles where Jesus both does something miraculous but also shows the nature of His love and the Kingdom of God in the abundance of what he creates and what it comes from.  These basins were wash basins for those that had to go and “relieve” themselves at the party.  The Jewish community would have considered that water to be completely dirty and unclean.  Yet Jesus takes the dirty and makes it clean.  You can definitely see some of clear foreshadowing to the Lord’s supper here, with the wine that Jesus creates and gives to all the people.  Again, taking the unclean and making it clean.

Notice too, in our reading today, the interplay that John sets up between darkness and light.  There are many of these types of interplay that happen in the book of John.  He is a masterful writer, blending many themes together throughout the whole of His writing, even carrying them on into His letters which we will read in about a month.  John works on making many distinctions between what was before Jesus and what was after.  The unclean and the clean at the wedding of Cana is just one example.  The darkness and the light that we see in chapter one as well.  In chapter three we also see a bit of the interplay between flesh (before) and spirit (after), and John lay this out very well without giving into some of the Gnostic teachings of the time that said that flesh was ultimately bad.  John does not say this, but points to a time when the Spirit will be in our flesh, in much the same way that he points to God incarnate in flesh through Jesus Christ.

As we begin our short journey through John, I think its important to know that John’s book is in many ways one of the most important theological books of the Bible.  I know that this is a difficult thing to say and I wouldn’t even discount the rest of Scripture, however John makes some very specific theological moves in His book that are very important for us as Christians.  While they are present in other places throughout the Bible and especially in the New Testament, John does a great job of weaving them in deeply in His writing.  The whole book of John is worth reading over and over.  We many only have a little time to cover each days’ reading (and I’m sorry if my posts get long these next few days, but there is just so much to say), but it’s still completely worth the read.  John’s Gospel is like a swimming pool: you can play in the shallow end and still get pretty wet, or you can dive down deep into the deep and get soaked.  My prayer this week is that we get as soaked as we possibly can in the good news of Jesus Christ as revealed in the book of John!

Day 204: Isaiah 26-28; In That Day…

The phrase “In That Day” is repeated several times today which indicates a certain emphasis in the reading for us.  We have just finished several days of Oracles, prophecies of judgment against the nations, and we know that there will be a time of judgment that will come upon Israel and all its surrounding neighbors.  Indeed the sins of the people both near and far would be called into account and the nations would be uprooted and brought low by the face of God.  Isaiah is talking about a rather tumultuous time that was to come for the world, or at least this part of it.  Time after time, empire after empire would conquer and subject the nations to their rule, sometimes taking the people away from their lands and sometimes allowing them to return.  Yet, as I have said time and again, even these rather grim prophecies are not without hope.

This hope is the subject of today’s reading, the hope that will come “in that day.”  The word ‘day’ that is used here does not necessarily mean a literal day necessarily, but can also be used by saying things like “in that time” or even “in that year.”  It is mostly a reference to a time period that will take place at a certain time, presumably after the time of judgment that is to come.  Isaiah references this time by saying again and again,  “in that day.”  He uses some very full descriptions and imagery to talk about what is to come ‘in that day,’ beautiful imagery of the work that the Lord will do and continue to do after the time of judgment has passed.

Today’s reading clearly has a high level of Messianic underpinning to it as well.  You can’t read far without hearing the echoes and whispers of the coming Savior, the One that the Lord will send to make all things right again.  After the Lord “punishes the Leviathan,” Isaiah writes, “In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit.”  He goes on to say later,

therefore thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: ‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’ And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plumb line;

These words are used in other places to also describe the coming of the Messiah.  All through this God is working towards the day that He would send His Son as the Savior of the World, the precious Cornerstone of the foundation that the Lord has been working and building in Israel since day one.  What we see and hear in this description is not a new thing, God is not changing His plans, but instead is continuing the work that He has been doing since the beginning of time to bring about reconciliation and redemption for all of humanity, something that could only be accomplished by God Himself, the act of which we know as the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.