Confessing the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ, our Lord!
As we continue our journey through the Apostles' Creed, we return to the section confessing our belief in Jesus Christ. We have already confessed that we believe that He came into the world to save sinners, that He is the Christ, that He is the only begotten Son of God, and that He is Lord! As we stated, that is saying a great deal about Jesus. Still, this creed has more to say about Him. In fact, that draws our attention to the Christ-centered nature of this Creed. Why is it so Christ-centered? The answer is because most of the heresies that the early church faced dealt with falsehoods which were proclaimed concerning Christ. This creed offers a defense against such falsehoods.
The incarnation is a key Christian doctrine defended in the Apostles' Creed. It is that doctrine that will be our focus this week. The creed states:
"He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary."
While this is the modern wording, it corresponds to the truth found in the traditional form of the creed:
"who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary."
Basically, the creed presents two affirmations. First, it states that Jesus Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit; second, it states that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.
It is shocking to me (though it should not be), that this confession of belief is as challenged today in the church as it was when this creed was being compiled. In the Patristic period of the church, this doctrine was attacked by those who wanted to deny the true humanity of Christ. Chief among these opponents of the true faith were the docetists. Docetism taught that Jesus was divine, but not truly human; what appeared to be His body was merely an appearance. This was particularly popular with Gnosticism since it taught that the material world was irredeemably corrupt. This being the case, Christ could not have a physical body even if it appeared that He did. Certainly, we could devote an entire post to this one heresy, responding from the Scriptures and writings of the early church. We stand with the creed to declare that the eternal word became flesh in the incarnation- the very miracle described in today's statement.
Even though docetism was a major threat to the orthodoxy of the early church, it was not the lone threat. Another major theological landmine existed in those who taught adoptionism. While docetism denied the humanity of Christ, adoptionism was a heresy that denied His true divinity. Adoptionists denied that Jesus is eternally God, rather He became God. He was a man adopted by God (at His baptism, or resurrection- depending on the particular model of adoptionism). In this adoption, Jesus is granted "Godhood."Just as with decotism, we could spend much time refuting this false teaching from the Scriptures and from logic. For instance, since eternity is an attribute of God, it becomes impossible to claim divinity for the non-eternal Jesus of the adoptionists. Happily, the Jesus of the Christian church is not created; He is eternal- the eternally begotten Son of God Who has taken on flesh.
So, as we can see, this creed was offered to the church in a time of much theological battle. We, too, live in an age of theological conflict with many of the front-line skirmishes involving these very same doctrines. Today, you can turn on the television and watch a sermon from America's largest church in which you will hear its influential pastor claim that Christianity does not hinge on the incarnation. Further, he seems to suggest that it is relatively unimportant when compared to other truths such as the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Yet, the early church never seemed to see these truths as in opposition to one another. In fact, one can only fully understand the accomplishments of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ if he understands what the Scriptures declare concerning His incarnation. It is for this reason that the incarnation is second among the statements of the Apostles' Creed concerning Jesus.
Why would we suggest that such a statement is necessary? Simply because the Scriptures present it as both true and necessary. For Jesus to accomplish the work for which He came, it was necessary that He be the person the Scriptures claim Him to be. It is not enough that Jesus went to the cross if He were not able to atone for sin. It is not enough that He simply arose since many liberals have attempted to explain away the resurrection for many years (via the "swoon" and other theories). No, Christ's mission only avails the Biblical salvation if He is able to die an atoning death, rise from the dead victoriously, ascend gloriously into heaven, and act as our interceding High Priest.
Let us see why as we move through the statement.
1.) "He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit"
Notice immediately that the creed states that Christ's birth was the result of conception. Immediately, we see a similarity to all human births. This is not denied in the Scriptures; quite the opposite, Christ became like us. However, this should not be taken to suggest that Christ's conception was not unique. Unlike us, He was not conceived by an earthly father; instead, the conception was supernatural. This is precisely what is recorded in Luke's Gospel.
Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”
But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”
Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”
And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.
The Gospel of Luke 1:26-35
We can see several key points in this text. First, the angel Gabriel specifically tells Mary that she will bear Jesus, the Son of God and the Messianic King. The passage explains Mary's confusion- she is a virgin. If that initial statement were not enough, Mary directly asks how this can be "since I do not know a man?" What is Gabriel's response? The Holy Spirit will accomplish this in a way that is both miraculous and mysterious. In a creative work of God the Holy Spirit, Mary will conceive of this child.
It is this aspect of the Incarnation that has long troubled both atheists and progressive Christians. It seems strange that this miracle should be so troublesome to any who claim Christianity. Compared to the miracles Christ accomplished in His life, or of the miracle of His resurrection, it does not seem out of place. Of course, these Christians often explain away those miracles as well. If we are to seriously deal with the claims of the Word of God, then we must accept that God claims to be a supernatural God who often works miraculously. Since this is the case, the incarnation should not trouble a faithful Christian.
Why is the Spirit's Work Essential?
In order to see why the Spirit's work in the incarnation is essential, we must return to the mission for which Christ entered the world. Jesus is sent into the world in order to save sinners; this work is foreshadowed by many of the types and offices of the Old Testament Scriptures. Yet Christ is not coming as simply another prophet, or priest, or king, He is coming as the fullness of the office of prophet, priest, and king. In other words, Christ is to be the perfect prophet, priest, and king! The fullness of these offices require the perfect mediator.
There had been many men who served as prophets, just as there had been both human priests and human kings. Some were better than others, but none were capable of being the fullness of the office. If a prophet faithfully mediated the word of God to men, he would still fail to be a perfect mediator. Why? Being a man, he was unable to perfectly mediate between God and man. This is also true of the office of High Priest. A man may be excellent as a High Priest, representing well the men that he ministers on behalf of, but he is not a perfect mediator before God. The very nature of mediation suggests that the fullness of the mediator would be one who is able to represent both parties. Only Christ, the God-man, can mediate perfectly as a prophet, perfectly representing God to man (because He is both God and man). In this same way, Hebrews establishes that Christ is the greater High Priest because He knows our frailties (having been made like us), yet can stand to intercede continually before God (Himself being God).
In fact, it was the sovereign plan of God that it happen in this way. For Christ was to be born of the tribe of Judah, meaning that He would be an Israelite. This means that He would be born into this world under the law. This is no small matter; Christ would perfectly keep the law. This is what the Apostle Paul wrote:
But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Galatians 4:4-5
Notice that Christ is born under the law in order that He might redeem those under the law. Who else, except the spotless Lamb of God, could accomplish so great a salvation? Who besides the incarnate Word could do what no other Jew had accomplished- to keep the law of God perfectly...to be tempted and tried as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). There is no other who could do this great work! If Christ has not entered into the world, taken on flesh, lived perfectly under the law, given His life as the spotless Lamb, and risen triumphantly from the grave (which could not hold Him for He was without sin), how could we have been delivered? Perhaps, in the wisdom of God, there could have been another way, but this I know: God chose to do it this way and I would be foolish to treat so gracious a gift with contempt.
2.) "and born of the Virgin Mary."
The second part of this equation is that the Holy Spirit overshadowed a faithful servant of the Lord- Mary. We have already looked to the text in Luke's Gospel, but I would ask that you keep it in mind. Much of the attack on the doctrine of the virgin birth is in regard to Mary's place in the story. It is clear that the early church saw her role as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 (as evidenced in Matthew 1:23). Of course, modern Jewish scholars and liberal Christians deny that this is the case. They state that Isaiah did not use the technical Hebrew word for virgin (betula), but simply the word for young woman (alma). It is claimed that the virgin aspect of this verse only arose in the Christian period, but this is clearly false. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, was completed two-hundred years before the Christian epoch. When those Jewish translators came to this passage, they translated Alma into parthenos- the Greek word for virgin.
Finally, it is important to remember that it pleased God to give Mary a very important part in the history of salvation. As Protestants, we should not avoid speaking about her simply because we get concerned that people will think that we sound like Mariologists. At the same time, Mary must never be elevated above her important role as a faithful, yet very human, servant of God. For this reason, the Mariology of the Roman Catholic church is clearly out of line. To speak of Mary as a mediatrix and co-redemptrix goes well beyond the biblical bounds. The sacred Scriptures declare that Christ is, alone, our Redeemer. Also, there is no Scripture that describes Mary as a mediator. With no Scriptural support, how can so many run across the border and into the profane?
We must clearly and boldly state the truth in plain words. Jesus is the eternal second person of the Trinity. He entered into time and space and became flesh, uniting both a human and divine nature in one person. He was fully and truly God; He was fully and truly man. This truth is not incidental, but essential. For Christ to fulfill the law as an Israelite, and to fulfill the offices given to Him, He had to be the perfect God-Man. This doctrine is emphasized and affirmed every time that we confess that we believe:
"He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary."