In the last several lessons we discussed the identity of our Redeemer. He is Jesus, Saviour; he is Christ, the Anointed One; he is the only-begotten Son of the Father, and he is our Lord.
As we continue along in the Apostles’ Creed, we now discuss his work and life. Traditionally, we divide the events in Jesus’ life into two parts: his humiliation and his glorification. His humiliation begins with his conception and birth, and ends with his burial (LD 14-16). His glorification begins with the resurrection and ends with his return as judge (LD 17-19).
The events in the life of our Lord Jesus are important in many ways. On one hand, they shed light on who he is. For instance, Jesus’ conception and birth are closely connected to his identity as both God and man. On the other hand, they are reflected in our lives. All Jesus did, he did for his people, he did for us. The catechism makes a point of fleshing this out in each of the following Lord’s Days: how does this aspect of Jesus’ life and work affect you?
In this lesson, we reflect on Jesus’ conception and birth. They were highly unusual, showing us just how special he is, and how perfectly qualified to save us.
Heaven and earth meet in Jesus Christ.
1. He left behind his glory.
2. He took on our nature.
3. He overcomes my sin.
He left behind his glory
Our human lives begin at our conception. When the sperm of a father meets the ovum of a mother, a fertilised cell is the miraculous beginning of a new human being that will grow and after about nine months be ready to be born.
Our Lord Jesus went through that whole process of birth. He was born like any other human being. His birth in a stable only underscores how down-to-earth, typically human it all was. His mother Mary was pregnant with him for months. From all appearances, it was a typical pregnancy and a typical birth.
Except that Jesus had not been conceived by a man. The gospels of Matthew and Luke make sure that we know that Joseph was not involved. Jesus was conceived in the body of Mary, but not in the usual human way. And that shows that the Lord Jesus was not simply a human being. From the moment he was a single cell in the womb of his mother, there was something essentially different about him.
What exactly happened, we will never understand. But the angel explained to Mary, in Luke 1:35: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Matthew explains: “Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” (Mat. 1:18) Based on this testimony of Scripture, we confess that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
What does that mean?
First of all, the baby that grew in Mary’s womb was not a new person. A new human being, yes. But he was from the very beginning the same person as the Son of God. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the child inside of Mary was identical with God himself, the Second Person of the Trinity. At the council of Chalcedon, the ancient church called her daringly the Theotokos, the “God-Birther”—not to lift Mary to a special level, but to underscore that we may never think of Mary’s child apart from his identity as God himself. The miracle of the conception by the Holy Spirit is that God himself entered into human existence, into a fertilised egg, then a foetus, then a baby.
The catechism starts here when it reminds us that in all this, the eternal Son of God is and remains true and eternal God. His divine identity and nature did not change in any way when he was conceived, as a human being, in the body of Mary.
Second, it means that the Son of God left behind his divine glory. The Bible says it this way: “He did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself.” (Phil. 2:6-7) Another translation is: “He made himself nothing.” Because compared to the bliss of heaven, whatever earth has to offer is as good as nothing. The infinite Son of God confined himself to the limitations of space and time. He willingly limited his infinite power. He entered a human life with the minimal knowledge that any other baby has. He subjected himself to the slow process of learning. He embraced suffering and pain. He made himself vulnerable, dependent on food and drink, dependent on others. The Son of God who is worshipped by thousands of angels came here to be slandered and mocked; the Lord and Maker of life came to earth knowing full well that it would get him killed.
Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit says something marvellous about who he is: the very Son of God. At the same time, it hints at the great depth of humiliation to which he submitted himself. His entering into a human womb was only the beginning of a life of suffering.
He took on our nature
What happened when Jesus was conceived and born? The Bible says: “God appeared in the flesh.” (1 Tim. 3:16) “The Word became flesh.” (John 1:14) We saw that the Son of God remained the Son of God in this process. Yet he also became a true human being. In the words of the old church Fathers: Jesus Christ is the God-Man.
This is a mystery we cannot fully comprehend, but there are some things about it that we must understand carefully. First of all, it was perfectly real. God the Son did not just pretend to be born from Mary. His physical body was not a mere appearance, like a hologram. When he ate, or cried, or was hurt, it was not just a show. Some people tend to think that way, because they can’t accept that a divine Person would allow those things to happen to himself. They want to defend the honour of God, but they end up denying the gospel. This mistaken view of Jesus’ appearing on earth is called docetism.
But docetism is wrong. It is as the catechism says: he took upon himself true human nature. Real flesh and real blood, real human body and real human mind, real human frailty and real human emotions. While it is a deep mystery, we must do full justice to the so-called hypostatic union of the Christ; this theological term means that in Jesus Christ, there is a seamless combination of a true divine nature and a true human nature. 100% God and 100% human. The one difference is that Jesus Christ, being the eternal Son of God, always had his divine nature. His human nature he assumed, he took it upon himself.
And the reality of that human nature is the point of Jesus’ birth from Mary. If he had swooped down from heaven, he may have looked like a real man, but would he be truly human, truly one of us? He would rather be like Superman, who in many ways is like a human being yet in reality an alien. On the other hand, had Jesus been born in a perfectly ordinary way, the son of two human parents, there would be no reason to think he was anymore than a man. He would be like Batman, who in spite of his heroic actions is ultimately no more than just a man.
But Jesus was born from the virgin Mary. Born, from a typical young woman: and so we know that he is real flesh and blood. This brings our Saviour very close to us. We may say that he was one of us. In the Bible, especially the letter to the Hebrews emphasises this.
For surely it is not angels he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Heb. 2:16-18)
The Son of God became our “brother”, our fellow human being, living in dependency of God in the same way we all should. In the words of the catechism, he is like his brothers in every respect—with only one exception: yet without sin.
There is another reason why the birth from Mary is important. She was from the royal family of David. Admittedly, that did not not give her, or Jesus, any prestige in society; Jesus grew up in a lower-class family. Nevertheless, there were specific prophecies about the family of David. God had promised that David’s throne would last forever. (Ps. 132:12) Even if this family of kings would be unfaithful—and they had been unfaithful!—the LORD would not give up on that promise. (Ps. 89:30-36) “His offspring shall endure forever, his throne as long as the sun before me.”
Jesus’ birth from Mary and his adoption in the family of Joseph makes clear that God never forgot this promise. The apostle Paul pointed it out at the beginning of his letter to the Romans: “God promised the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power…” (Rom. 1:3) The birth may have taken place in a lowly stable in Bethlehem, but it was a royal birth, which qualified Jesus Christ as the true seed of David, as the promised King whose throne would last forever.
He overcomes my sin
Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. That says much about him. But what benefit do we receive from the holy conception and birth of Christ? The catechism (q&a 36) wants to bring Jesus’ life closer to us, and show its relevance for each of us.
First of all, as we have discussed before, Jesus’ identity as true God and true man makes him the perfect Mediator, the one who stands between God’s holiness and our sin, the one who can restore the broken relationship between us. In the history of the church, many have denied or downplayed either Jesus’ divinity or his humanity—but that always takes away from his perfect ability to be the Saviour.
Second, our deep problem of sin does not develop later in life, but is present from the very beginning in our mother’s womb. “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me,” said David in Psalm 51:5, and that is true for all of us. We are conceived and born in sin. Our Saviour not only deals with our sinful actions, but with the root problem. To redeem our whole life, including that original sin, he lived our whole life.
The difference between Jesus’ birth and our birth is that he had innocence and perfect holiness from the very beginning. His conception by the Holy Spirit kept the stain and guilt of sin away. Not because mother Mary was sinless, as the Roman Catholic church teaches—but because of a divine activity of the Spirit. So Jesus lives the life that we should have lived, but couldn’t: a life of perfect dedication to the Lord, without a single thought or word out of line. When Christ brought the sacrifice of his body and blood into the sanctuary of heaven, it was the sacrifice of a perfect human life from beginning to end.
If we belong to Jesus Christ through faith, then that perfect life stands in for our sinful, messed-up lives. With his innocence and perfect holiness he covers, in the sight of God, my sin, in which I was conceived and born.
By his miraculous, sinless birth, the Lord Jesus breaks the spiral of original sin. We may be sons of Adam by nature, but Jesus Christ has become the second Adam who gives us greater, holy life. He makes it possible to be “born again”, “born from above”, to enter a new life driven by his Spirit, and his holiness, in which his perfection counts as ours.
In the person of Jesus Christ, heaven and earth meet together. His conception by the Holy Spirit shows that he is truly divine, God the Son himself, powerful to save, holy and without sin. His birth from Mary shows that he is truly human, one of us, who lived the perfect human life and presented it to the Father as the sacrifice for our sin.
This conception and birth are at the heart of the most important event in history: Jesus is the unique God-Man, perfectly qualified to be our Mediator and Saviour. In the end, we don’t understand the details; the virgin birth will always be a miracle of the highest order. But we celebrate it, because without it there could be no salvation for us. We, who are conceived and born as sinners, can only become citizens of heaven and children of God by sharing in the heavenly life of Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man.
- How was Jesus’ conception different from that of any of us?
- Why did the ancient church characterize Mary as the “God-Birther”?
- What does it mean that Christ “emptied” himself (Phil. 2:7)?
- What does it mean that he “assumed human nature”?
- What is the only key difference between our human nature and Christ’s human nature?
- What is the problem with our conception and birth? How does Jesus Christ overcome this?
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||Isaiah 7. What was the sign God gave to King Ahaz? In what way does this sign prefigure the coming of Jesus Christ? (See also Mat. 1:23)|
|Tuesday||Luke 1:26-38. What does Mary (and what do we) learn about the way Jesus was conceived?|
|Wednesday||Romans 1:1-7. Who is Jesus “according to the flesh” (v.3)? Who is he “according to the Spirit” (v. 4)? What do these characterisations tell you about our Lord?|
|Thursday||Luke 2:40-52. In what way did the young Jesus behave like a typical human child? In what way did he show his divine calling? In what respect did he “grow” and “increase”? (v. 40, 52)|
|Friday||John 1:14-18. What does it mean that “the Word became flesh”? When did John see his glory?|
|Saturday||Hebrews 2:14-18. What does it mean for Jesus “to be made like his brothers in every respect”? Why was this necessary?|