This article is about the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. He took on our humanity in order to be our Saviour.

2016. 6 pages. Transcribed by Ineke van der Linden. Transcription started at 2:39 and stopped at 31:08.

Apostolic Confession - Christ: Conceived, Born

Read Matthew 1:18-25

We have reached the point in our series of studies on The Apostles’ Creed where throughout the ages Christians have confessed something very distinctive about the Lord Jesus Christ. “We believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the virgin Mary.” Actually, it strikes me as a very refreshing thing to think about the nativity in the month of September.

The church where we used to serve was like our own church here – a downtown city centre church – although the downtown there was the shopping epicentre of Scotland. Thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of people passed the front door of the church every day of the year. And it always struck me as being something of a kind of parable of our struggles in the Christian life that the time of the year when it was it was most difficult to park around our church was the three Sundays leading up to Christmas, when the rest of the population of the city and the rest of Scotland were all piling into our city centre in order to buy presents at 11 o’clock in the morning when we would have our worship service apparently to celebrate the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, whom they had no intention whatsoever of ever worshipping! And I thought the difficulty that we had parking our cars in some sense was a kind of parable of the difficulty many Christians have at Christmas time. (Transcription of audio file from 04:24 to 04:35 omitted.) Often I’ve heard ministers say, “Now, we really need to celebrate Christmas in a spiritual way” when people’s brains are so full of material things that they find it difficult to “park spiritually” at the centre of the Christmas message.

Now, when it comes to Christmas time, we will celebrate Christmas. This is not a preannouncement that Christmas has been abandoned for this year! We will celebrate Christmas, but it is a good thing to think about what it really means when you’re not cluttered up by all the other anxieties and pressures that there are at Christmas time. I think it may still be true that Christmas time is the season of the year where there’s the highest incidence of suicide. Such are the pressures; particularly upon mothers’ lives.

What do we mean when we say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the virgin Mary”? It is fairly clear when you read through the Creed that this must be of enormous importance – not something that we can just slide past and say, “Well, that’s never really been essential to the Christian faith.” And the reason it is of enormous importance is, as you know from reciting the Creed time and time again, the Creed moves immediately from the birth of the Lord Jesus to the death of the Lord Jesus and says absolutely nothing about the thirty years in between. And really, it is one of the ways in which the Creed is saying to us that actually the nature of His coming into the world and the nature of His leaving the world are the two essential bookends of the gospel into which His teaching fits. So these are not incidental to His teaching, but the whole purpose of His teaching is to help us to understand why it is that He came into the world in this way and why it is that He left the world in this very distinctive way – through crucifixion and resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God. It is to help us understand this that Matthew has written these words in chapter 1 of his gospel, verses 18 through 25.

There are four fairly basic things that I want us to try and think about together. What does he say about the virgin conception and (follow my words carefully) the virginal, but natural birth of the Lord Jesus? There was nothing whatsoever supernatural about His birth that isn’t supernatural about any birth. He was born exactly the same way, with presumably exactly the same pain, as you and I have been born. What is of the quintessence of what Christians confess? It is not that He had a different kind of birth experience, but that He has a wholly different origin from the origin of our children.

The Fulfilment of Prophesy🔗

And the very first thing that we notice here – particularly because of the way Matthew introduces this section in his gospel. You remember he spent the previous verses reciting a genealogy, and by doing that he is giving us a hint that the inner significance of what’s happening here is actually connected to something God has been doing right down through the ages – the first thing to notice in what Matthew says (you will notice that it kind of stands out and hits you between the eyes) is that the birth of the Lord Jesus is a fulfilment of ancient prophesy. And of course, the prophesy that is in view here is the prophesy of Isaiah 7:14: “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel”, which means ‘God with us’.

It helps us to understand what is going on here when we remember that this has been preceded by a genealogy that takes us right back to Abraham. And punctuating that genealogy is a very striking phenomenon. That genealogy is punctuated by a series of women who appear in it who, from one point of view or another, had children in a completely unexpected way. You think it goes back to Abraham, and the way in which the wonder of the birth of Isaac was related to the fact that Abraham’s wife Sarah was barren. She was old, and Abraham himself was pressing 100. So the message here is that right from the very beginning of the unfolding of His purposes among His people, God has in a sense been giving to His people indications that He moves His purposes forward by ways that men and women themselves can never accomplish.

You see that right through the Old Testament, and interestingly right, as it were, up to the moment of the conception of the Lord Jesus. What is it that Mary discovers when she goes to the hill country to Elizabeth? She discovers that Elizabeth, whom we are told was barren, is expecting a child – as it turns out, John the Baptist. And so as you watch the Old Testament unfold right up to the point of John the Baptist, whom Jesus said was the greatest of the Old Testament witnesses to Himself, you see that God has been giving huge hints that one day there is going to be a birth that will not only be unexpected and miraculous in that sense, but a birth that will be wholly miraculous in its origin, and He Himself will accomplish it. He will fulfil His ancient promise that a virgin will conceive.

Now, it is surely a miracle that Sarah who is completely out of it (I mean totally ancient; geriatric is hardly the word for her!), that she gives birth to a child. But you see, this child is born not of a barren woman in the ordinary sense, but of a virgin girl in all likelihood in her teens. And what’s being underlined for us here is that God is going to keep the greatest of His promises which was given to His people right away back in Genesis 3, that through the seed of the woman, in unexpected and amazing ways, He would bring into the world one particular seed of the woman who would bring deliverance to all the people of God, and He would be Immanuel. So the uniqueness of His conception has got something intimately to do with the nature of His name. The first thing for us to grasp is that this conception and birth of the Lord Jesus by the virgin Mary is a fulfilment of a very ancient prophesy. It wasn’t, at the end of the day, a complete surprise.

The Incarnation of Deity🔗

Second, that the way in which the Son of God enters our world is a way that is altogether appropriate to His Deity. We often speak about the virgin birth, and indeed the text tells us that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born, but the really important thing that is being emphasized is that she remained a virgin so that it would be evident that the conception was a conception that had taken place in her womb because of the mighty working of God.

Now here’s a question (and in some ways it is an imponderable question): why did God do it this way? Well, one very wrong answer obviously is because there is something wrong with relationships between men and women, in terms of the language that’s used here, “knowing each other” in this intimate sexual way. In a way that is a kind of laughable thought really, because that leaves you thinking, “Well, how did God expect the first man and the first woman ever to have children?” So the Lord does not come into the world in this way because (although sometimes sadly Christians have thought this) there’s something distasteful about human relationships.

No, He comes into the world this way (as some of the best thinkers in the Christian church have understood) because there is something unusually appropriate about Him entering the world this way. And then when you step back and think about it, there isn’t another way that anyone can think of that would either be appropriate, or indeed, proper. He doesn’t come into the world simply as the fruit of a human union, because then He would need to be, as it were, raised up to be God. Then He would need to be adopted to be the Son of God. He wouldn’t be the Son of God from the beginning. No, what the New Testament is emphasizing to us – although, like all of God’s greatest actions in this world from the beginning, He does this in complete darkness. And I wouldn’t be surprised that we are meant to sense that He does it in complete darkness just to underline to us that there are things about what God does that none of us can understand and for which He offers no explanation.

I think we need to understand that as Christians – that we don’t have all the answers to all the smart questions that people ask us. We know God does, but we don’t need to feel intimidated by people who say, “If you don’t have the answer to that question, why should I believe you?” Think about it this way: when God created the world, He did it in total darkness, didn’t He? “In the beginning, the earth was without form and void”, and what did God say? We need light here.

And then when you think about some of the incidents in Scripture, you realise that God has done some of His greatest work in the darkness, as though to give a kind of symbol that there are places where prying eyes need to close themselves in humility and say, “Lord, You are God and not I!” That was true at the cross, wasn’t it? Do you remember how there was darkness that came across the land when the Lord Jesus was being crucified? As though God was saying physically, “No prying eyes here!” And He was raised in complete darkness – have you ever thought of that? That huge stone over the tomb and our Lord’s body in complete darkness that night? You need to live in a relatively rural community before you know what complete darkness is. His body lay there in complete darkness and in the darkness of that tomb. God did the mysterious and glorious work of the resurrection. Does the Bible give us further hints about why this should be the case? Well, I think it does. Yes, our Lord’s incarnation is the fulfilment of an ancient prophesy. Our Lord’s incarnation is certainly appropriate for the coming of Deity.

The Assumption of Humanity🔗

The third thing to notice is that the way in which the Son of God comes tells us that He took our humanity. It tells us He took our humanity, and that right from the very beginning (this is a thought that really just boggles my mind) the One who is greater than all of the universes entered this universe and took to Himself not just human form, but embryonic form in the womb of the virgin Mary. One of the themes that you often get in the Christmas hymns is the distance between where He was and where He came – that’s the marvel of the Christmas message. Those of you who are lovers of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” and all the other Narnia tales, do you remember the point at which one of the children says, “Yes, in our world too there was something that held someone who was bigger than the whole universe.”

The amazing thing is this (and you know, this tells us something about the way in which we need to learn to treat the unborn, doesn’t it): that the Son of God was not ashamed to begin life where you and I begin life and to count it precious and to sanctify it. There in the darkness He was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary, took her flesh, and as we are told by Luke, in the moment of assuming that flesh He sanctified that flesh that right from the moment of the beginning of our lives… Why did He do that? So that right from the very beginning of human life He might begin to become our Saviour! Think about it this way: if Jesus had come as a thirty-year-old man, how could He do anything to repair the lives of those who were under thirty? Do you remember how David puts it? How he says, “In the darkness of my mother’s womb I was already spiritually misshapen.” Not just when I started shouting at my mother when I was three-years-old. I started shouting at my mother and not obeying my mother when I was three-years-old because there was a twist that was there right from the beginning. And actually, it was also in my mother and father and in their mother and father. He says, “I was conceived in sin.” He is not talking about the action of his parents; he is talking about the fact that his sin goes right, right, right down into the very basic stuff of his being.

So in order to save us, in order to transform us, in order to work in our lives all the way through, the Lord entered into the frailty and weakness and absolute dependence of our humanity right from its very beginning, in order that as finally He would die on the cross for us and rise again to be our Saviour He might, as it were, return to us in the power of His Holy Spirit and from the youngest to the oldest point in our lives say to us, “I can change this. I have been there. I have the power to resist this temptation, and I can save you.”

Of course, in coming into the world in this way our Saviour is sinless. And in coming into the world in this way our Saviour, the Son of God, takes our humanity. Why, at the end of the day, does He have to do this? Because, as you understand, in our sinful and fallen condition there is no one here among us who is able to do it for us. Our basic problem as the Bible sees it is: “We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and “the wages of our sin” (what we deserve for our sin) “is death.” There are no exceptions. And so we can’t find somebody. There isn’t anyone to who we can go, not even the finest of us, and say, “Now look, you are free from guilt and you are free from the judgement of God – can you do something for us?” No, we are all under that judgement. There is nobody to whom we can say, “Is there some way you could take that judgement in our place?” There is nobody there. So God, in His infinite mercy, says, “Since there is no one there, I will be there Myself.”

You see, He doesn’t come as God, because we are the problem. He is not the problem; we are the problem. He comes as the living God who assumes our humanity and lives in that humanity, in order that for us – as the New Testament so often says, as the great creeds say – for us man and for our salvation, He came down in order that not only throughout His life might He live in a holy way, but as the Holy One of God He might bear our sins. It is almost as though all creation ought to point to Jesus and say, “At last there is somebody there who can take our place!”

And that, of course, that is why the creed jumps on immediately to the fact that He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried, because it is wanting us to see that the significance of His coming through the virgin Mary is the significance of His dying as our substitute, as our representative, as our Saviour. And then being able to come to us and say to us, “Dear one, it doesn’t matter what darkness you’re in. Troubled one, it doesn’t matter what temptation you face. Guilty one, it doesn’t matter how crushing the load is – I have done everything that is needed to bring you forgiveness. I am all that is needed to bring you strength. I have the power that no one else has to come and transform your life.” So He comes to fulfil prophesy. He comes because that’s appropriate for the coming of the Deity. He comes in a way that He assumes our humanity.

By God’s Grace Completely🔗

And then this fourth thought: He comes to show us that our salvation is by God’s grace completely. This is the incarnation of Deity. This is the assumption of real humanity by One who fulfils ancient prophesy to show us that salvation is by grace completely. What do I mean by that? I mean that Joseph contributes nothing to His conception. And in that conception, Mary is completely passive. You see how God is doing it? It’s almost as though He is saying, “There is no one among you who is able to accomplish it. You are helpless and hopeless, but I have devised a way by which man may rise to the presence of God.”

I love those words of William Temple, who by many accounts was the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury in old England in the 20th century. His father actually was also Archbishop of Canterbury, and many Episcopalians believe he may well have been the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury since the time of the Reformation – an extraordinary man. George Bernard Shaw said about him: “He was a realized impossibility.” Now that’s something! And you know, when he went forward for ordination he wasn’t sure whether he believed in the virgin birth. But later he said this: “The only thing that we contribute to our salvation is the sin that makes that salvation necessary.” And that is really part of what the incarnation is saying to us. God is saying to us, “Man has no resources for this. Men and women have no resources for this, but I have resources for it, and I will send Jesus.” If I woke you up – as someone was telling me earlier on they were awakened by a phone call about five o’clock in the morning – and said, “What does the name Jesus really mean?” every single one of us could say, “Call His name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.”

When I was a little chap, my parents didn’t go to church but they sent me to Sunday school every Sunday morning. We used to sing a song, and I guess I have not thought about this song for about 45 years, and suddenly this morning it popped into my mind. And I was trying to think, “Now, how does that third line go again so I can tell the people?” Here’s how it goes: “He did not come to judge the world. He did not come to blame. He did not only come to seek. It was to save, He came! And when we call Him Saviour; and when we call Him Saviour; and when we call Him Saviour, we call Him by His Name.” Now here’s the question: You know that Jesus means Saviour, but it is when we call Him Saviour we know Him by His Name – have you ever called on Him as Saviour? That is what it’s all about!

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