“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” says John (1:14). It’s incredible and surprising! God takes on flesh and comes down to engage us, change us, redeem us, and make us ready for eternity. And as quickly as this chapter of God’s plan begins, the naysayers, cynics, and Devil’s handiwork kicks in with a vengeance… and it hasn’t stopped.
Sure, those on the broad road to destruction may be easier targets. But, how about those in the church? There’s a raging battle for the hearts and minds of those inside the walls of faith. If Satan can rip out any surprise from the Gospel message; cynicism, pride and general boredom can all flood in and make a home. Satan’s crafty plan starts with stealing away the truth of the virgin birth and carries further to Jesus’ death and resurrection and certainly the hope in the second coming. But, given the season and the importance of starting well, here are some points to consider when teaching on the virgin birth specifically.
Why a Virgin Birth? How to teach our congregations its importance
The Mother of God
I remember in a seminary class when the professor asked what seemed to be an obvious question, “Who is Mary?” Responses came from around the room. “The mother of Jesus,” several students said. “The Lord’s servant,” another said, citing Luke 1:38 with authority. The professor qualified his question. “There’s only one doctrinally correct answer to the question,” he said. “All the others have the ability to anathematize you from the church.” Silence. He then said, “Mary is the mother of God.” The light bulbs went on all over the room. Of course! In saying she is the mother of God, you have both Jesus’ humanity, being born of a woman, and his divinity, being the Son of God. If we simply say, “Mary is the mother of Jesus,” we exclude the mystery, surprise and awe. More importantly, we softly dismiss the truth even without knowing we’re doing it. The Greek word is Theotokos which means “the bringer forth of God.”
Jesus is Heaven’s Son
The virgin birth of Jesus is the event that gives clarity to the truth of Jesus as Heaven’s Son. John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1) and Paul reiterates with, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7). If we dismiss the virgin birth, we are dismissing Jesus as the Son of God.
Jesus is the New Adam
If we deny the virgin birth, we are subtracting so much from the story. Adam, formed by God, sinned. That sin has a long shadow. Paul says, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Jesus is God, the spotless lamb who is slain for our sin. The virgin birth assures us that the stain of Adam’s sin is not in or on God himself. And we see this played out. As Hebrews says, “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” (4:15).
Whether or not we recite a creed in church, it’s important to have a little history on the importance of several creeds, especially the Nicene and Chalcedon ones. We face similar challenges that provoked the council of church leaders to come together in Nicaea (325) and then again in Chalcedon (451). The challenges center on the identity of Jesus. In Nicaea, a church leader named Arius raised the ire of everyone because, as he wrote in a letter, “We are persecuted because we say that the Son has a beginning but that God is without beginning.” In Chalcedon, the Church throws out the teachings of Nestorius, that Jesus was two separate persons, one human, and one divine. He wanted to exchange Theotokos for Christotokos, “the bringer forth of Christ.” Instead, Chalcedon reasserts more vigorously the Hypostatic Union, that Jesus is of one person, with two natures.
Here are excerpts from each of the creeds as they address Jesus’ identity, especially in relation to the virgin birth. We see the Chalcedon Creed supports and further expounds on the nature of Jesus.
Nicene Creed (325)
I believe… in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary…
Chalcedon Creed (451)
Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us One and the same Son, the Self-same Perfect in Godhead, the Self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man; the Self-same of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential with us according to the Manhood; like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the Self-same, for us and for our salvation (born) of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to the Manhood; One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself hath taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers hath handed down to us.
In many ways, we can hear the echo of Jesus’ question to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Let us stand with the revelation of Peter, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
A Silent Night
Andrew Peterson invites us to think differently about Jesus’ birth in the song “Labor of Love”. He sings, “It was not a silent night; there was blood on the ground. You could hear a woman cry in the alleyways that night, on the streets of David’s town. And the stable was not clean; the cobblestones were cold. And little Mary full of grace, with the tears upon her face, had no mother’s hand to hold. It was a labor of pain; it was a cold sky above. But for the girl on the ground in the dark with every beat of her beautiful heart, it was a labor of love.” We sing Franz Gruber’s “Silent Night,” but perhaps we forget too quickly about the chaos that night: the lack of facilities, the breadth of aloneness for Mary and Joseph, the encroaching violence, the overwhelming fear and anxiety of parenthood, the strangers that come having seen angels. We should be reminded that it’s a labor of love, that Mary herself, in a very real sense, is an altar to God.
The fulfillment of so much hope and so much surprise is wrapped in the truth of the virgin birth. It’s the entry point of God’s promises, after a long absence of prophetic events. It’s the beginning of the poetry of Isaiah found in the flesh, the pageantry of temple sacrifice ending in the One who goes as a lamb to the slaughter, the revelation of God’s love and judgment. Let us celebrate the truth, beauty, and mystery of Christmas: God in the flesh, hovered over by Mary, the Mother of God, and Joseph by her side.