The God of Heaven Became Human
What We Still and Will Believe
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. (Apostles’ Creed)
Just one brick in the wall of Christianity. That’s what the young pastor claimed about the virgin birth. No need to stand by unnecessary barriers to the Christian faith. If someone takes that brick out, he said, it doesn’t mean the whole wall falls.
Indeed the wall may not fall right away. But who starts taking bricks out of walls he wants to stay standing? The wall may stand for our lifetime, but what about the generations that follow? Why bequeath them a faulty wall? And besides, this pastor, now a former pastor, went on to prove that abandoning the virgin birth is rarely the end of one’s removing of bricks.
It is, in fact, vital that the church affirm, as it has throughout the centuries, that Jesus “was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary” because the Gospels so plainly teach it. Believing in the virginal conception is essential, as believing anything God tells us is essential. He could have brought his Son into the world in a different way, but he didn’t — and he’s told us how he did it. Will we pretend to cry, “Lord, Lord,” and not believe what he says?
“Believing in the virginal conception is essential, as believing anything God tells us is essential.”
The Apostles’ Creed confesses, “We believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.” Who Jesus is — according to the Scriptures, and captured in this time-tested, careful summary of the early church — is not disconnected or unrelated to the virginal conception. Yet before getting to his birth, the creed makes three massive claims about Jesus that may sound so familiar we’re prone to overlook their significance. Consider the simplicity and depth of the church’s long-standing confession of Jesus as “Christ, his only Son, our Lord.”
Jesus, the Christ
“Jesus Christ” — his given name and his messianic title have been associated so closely now for two millennia that we often treat them like his first and last name. “Christ,” of course, is Greek for Anointed One (Messiah in Hebrew). For a thousand years before the first Christmas, God’s people waited for a coming Messiah — the Christ — who would fulfill God’s promises to and through the great king David.
Through the prophet Nathan, God announced to David, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). David’s throne established forever meant either one descendant after another, with the dynasty never ending, or one singular offspring in David’s line ruling forever. David, through divine guidance, came to take it as the latter, and even spoke of a descendant who would be his superior, his lord, to whom God himself would say, “Sit at my right hand” (Psalm 110:1). God would not only make this descendent king without end but, shockingly, also “a priest forever” (Psalm 110:4).
Through Isaiah and the prophets, God’s people grew in their anticipations and longing for this great child to be born, this son to be given, on whose shoulders would be their government and whom the people would call, remarkably, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore. (Isaiah 9:7)
How they might call him “Mighty God” would be discovered in time, but to pine for a long-expected, coming Christ was doubtless to anticipate one who would be human, and no less. Like his forefather David, he would be a human king. To be born in David’s line would mean to be born of a woman. When we attribute Christ to Jesus, while implying far more, we are not expecting anything less than one who is truly man.
And so he was. He was no spirit pretending or just seeming to be human. As the Gospel of John captures it so memorably, “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). He was human, all the way down. Born of a human mother, he was swaddled as a frail infant, exposed to danger in this fallen world, grew in strength and wisdom and stature (Luke 2:40, 52), and “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). He ate, drank, and slept — grew tired (John 4:6), became thirsty (John 19:28) and hungry (Matthew 4:2) and physically weak (Matthew 4:11; Luke 23:26). He died (Luke 23:46). And he rose again with a truly human, now glorified, body (Luke 24:39; John 20:20, 27).
“‘Jesus is Lord’ is at once both the most basic and highest of declarations.”
But not just human in body; also in soul. He plainly exhibited human emotions, marveling (Matthew 8:10), being troubled (John 11:33–35; 12:27; 13:21), and being “very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38). So also he demonstrated a human mind as he grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52) and acknowledged nescience (Mark 13:32) — and a human will in his lifelong submission to his Father’s (John 6:38), culminating at Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39).
The true and full humanity of the Christ was never in question for his disciples and those who walked with him on the streets of Galilee and Jerusalem. They saw him, heard him, touched him (1 John 1:1). He plainly was nothing less than human. Yet those strictest of monotheists, who would eventually worship this man, came to see, in time, that he was more.
Jesus, God’s Only Son
Christ is one thing; God’s “only Son” is quite another. This Jesus is not only true man, the church came to confess, but also true God. But not as modern cynics might assume. Confessing Jesus as God’s own Son — as God himself in the triunity of the Godhead — was not a project undertaken by his apostles and subsequent generations as their veneration of a great teacher grew out of proportion.
Rather, when this true man rose from the dead, as an objective fact of history, with more than five hundred witnesses (1 Corinthians 15:6), the final piece was now in place. From centuries of prophecy and a life of intimations and shocking revelations came the verdict: this man was not only Christ but indeed truly God, God’s own Son.
Long had God himself pledged to come (Psalm 96:11–13; Micah 5:2). Isaiah, as we’ve seen, saw “Mighty God” in this child born and son given. And now, with eyes open by his resurrection, we see it “in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27, 44), and on every page in the Gospels, from the litany of unexpected details surrounding his birth, to the surprising authority of his teaching, to the growing whispers with each sign he performed.
The Jewish religion maintained a clear ontological divide between God and man. Only God was Creator; only God deserved worship; only God stilled the seas; only God would judge the world. Yet again and again, the words and acts of Christ demonstrated that this man’s true identity defied the categories. Not only was he manifestly man, but he was demonstrably divine. Somehow the one true God himself had come among them as one of them, as man. He was indeed one — one essence the church would come to say — and also three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Jesus, Our Lord
One towering last mark of the divine identity in the Jewish mind was the title Lord. The first and foremost confession of their faith was that Yahweh is Lord. Yahweh — that holiest of names, God’s own personal, covenantal name, revealed to Moses at the bush. So holy was the name that for fear of mispronouncing it, or somehow dishonoring it with unclean lips, the people would supply Lord (Hebrew adonai) when reading aloud God’s name in the scrolls.
This makes the early attribution Jesus is Lord — by Jews, of all people — so stunning. Jesus is Lord is at once both the most basic and highest of declarations. And not only, against the backdrop of the Hebrew Scriptures, is this a clear and resounding confession of Christ’s deity but also a testimony to his singularity of person.
He is the one Lord of his people. And their one Lord is a singular person. As both truly man and truly God, he is not two persons. Rather, he is one spectacular person with two full and distinct natures, divine and human — as the great creed of A.D. 451 would claim, “without confusion, change, division, or separation.”
One Spectacular Person
This singular person — fully God and fully man, in one spectacular person — is the one who dwelt months in Mary’s womb, and was born in Bethlehem. Unlike any other man, he is God. And unlike any other man, he was “conceived by the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:31, 35; Matthew 1:18, 20).
God could have chosen to bring his Son into the world in another way. But he didn’t. He saw fit in his unsearchable wisdom, for our joy and for the glory of his Son, to do it the way he did it at that first Christmas. And we marvel. Wayne Grudem captures what many have observed throughout the centuries,
God, in his wisdom, ordained a combination of human and divine influence in the birth of Christ, so that his full humanity would be evident to us from the fact of his ordinary human birth from a human mother, and his full deity would be evident from the fact of his conception in Mary’s womb by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit.
The glory of his virginal conception is no brick to remove and toss away. This is not only a stubborn, objective fact of history and divine revelation, but also a precious glimpse from the Father as to who this Jesus is. He is the Christ, and fully man, and he is God’s only Son, and fully divine, and all in one united, unconfused, and undivided person, who is our Lord.
The servants of their Lord happily receive it, and gladly proclaim it, along with a host of other surprising truths an unbelieving world finds just as unpalatable.