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Order Of Worship (Liturgy)Hymn 3:1-3
Augment Hymn 28
Readings: Luke 1:26-38, Galatians 4:1-7, Belgic Confession article 18
Text: Lord's Day 14
Beloved congregation of Jesus Christ,
He was a man on a journey, traveling to find the woman he’d marry. The girls in his hometown were no good. His mom said that she’d die if he married one of those disgusting girls. And to make matters worse, he had a brother who wanted to kill him. In Genesis 28, we read the story of Jacob’s journey to find his wife from among the daughters of Laban. Along the way, he stopped at a place called Luz and spent the night there. Sleeping out under the night sky, Jacob had a dream. It was a dream of a stairway, or a ziggurat. A ziggurat is a round tower with a stairway on the outside. It’s sometimes thought of as a ladder, but that’s not really an accurate translation. Jacob saw a staircase or a ziggurat, and he saw angels ascending and descending. But Jacob himself didn’t climb up, nor was he told to. He saw God, Yahweh, at the top and the passage implies that Yahweh came down to Jacob to speak with him. God came down the stairway to bless Jacob with beautiful promises. Afterwards, Jacob renamed the place. Instead of Luz, it would be known as Bethel, the house of God.
Some have said that this passage could aptly be titled, “Christmas at Bethel.” It’s a powerful picture of God coming down to earth with blessings for his people. It’s not about people climbing their way up to God, but about God graciously coming into our world and blessing us. Genesis 28 portrays the gospel truth that it is God who comes after us, who takes the initiative to save and to bless. There we see the good news of the incarnation prophesied. This afternoon, we’re going to consider that good news as we explore how it is the Triune God who brought us the benefit of the holy conception and birth of Christ. As I proclaim God’s Word, we’ll consider the role of:
- The Father
- The Son
- The Holy Spirit
Each person of the Trinity did something in the incarnation of Christ. Now when we say “incarnation,” we’re referring to Jesus Christ coming in human flesh. “Incarnation” literally means, “coming in the flesh.” Jesus Christ became incarnate at his conception, he took on human flesh, in other words, he became a fully human zygote and developed into a fully human embryo, and then fetus and then was born as a fully human infant.
In the Catechism we confess from the Scriptures that he took this truly human nature from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary. Mary did not have sexual relations with any man before Jesus’ birth, but yet she became pregnant. This happened through the working of the Holy Spirit. But we can go back a couple of steps and also consider the role of God the Father.
In Galatians 4:4, we read, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…” The Belgic Confession echoes this text in Article 18, “We confess, therefore, that God has fulfilled the promise he made to the fathers by the mouth of his holy prophets when, at the time appointed by him, he sent into the world his own only-begotten and eternal Son…” Now the role of the Father is implied with the the fact that it is God’s Son who was sent. It’s only implied in Galatians 4:4 and the Belgic Confession (and the Catechism for that matter), but it is said explicitly in 1 John 4. In 1 John 4:9, it says that God sent his one and only Son into the world. Then later in 1 John 4:14, we read that the Father has sent his Son. There it’s made explicit that God the Father sent his Son and it’s directly said or implied in other places in Scripture too.
Now we could and should ask the question as to why. Galatians 4:5 says that it was for the purpose of redeeming “those under the law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” In other words, Christ was sent in order to save us from sin and its effects, and most significantly from the just judgment which the law stipulates for sin. The law of God says that the one who has sinned is cursed and will be under God’s eternal judgment. All people are under that law. But with the coming of Jesus Christ, we have the gospel. The gospel says that all who believe in Christ are no longer under the curse of the law. They’re brought from the court room into the family room. They become God’s adopted sons, those who will receive his inheritance. So, why did the Father send the Son? According to Galatians 4, it was to lavish us with an inheritance. Like with Jacob at Bethel, God has come down to us and blessed us. As part of that, we’re no longer slaves, but sons and we can call upon God as our Father.
And according to 1 John 4, all this is evidence that God loves us. God showed his love for us in sending his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Propitiation means that he would be the sacrifice that would turn God’s wrath away from us. The Father loves us and this is shown in his sending his Son to be our Saviour.
This is the kind of initiative that God has shown from the very beginning. In Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve sinned, God didn’t wait for them to come to him. He might have done that. He could have said, “I’ll just wait until they feel guilty and come and confess what they’ve done.” But he didn’t. Instead, he went after them. He sought them out. He confronted them about their sin and then he also gave promises in which he said that sin would be dealt with. God’s sending his Son into the world was the fulfillment of those promises. In sending his Son into the world, God revealed himself not only as loving, but also as faithful to all that he promises. He is the covenant-keeping God, whose Word we can trust.
Now what about the role of the Son? The Catechism says that he “took upon himself true human nature.” Did you notice that it’s active, that he did something in this? When our children are conceived, they are completely passive. They have nothing to do with their being shaped and formed in their mother’s womb. But with Christ it was different. He was active. He “took upon himself true human nature.” That’s what the Catechism says, but can we support that with Scriptural proof?
A moment ago we sang from Psalm 40. Someone is portrayed in that Psalm as saying, “Here I am, I have come – it is written about me in the scroll. I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” The question is: who is that someone who said that? Hebrews 10 tells us straight up that these words were prophecy about Jesus Christ. Philippians 2:7 says likewise that Christ, “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Our Mediator was actively involved in his incarnation: it was attentive and deliberate action on his part. It was part of his active obedience to the will of the Father who sent him. It’s all part of what he has done for us.
A lot of times people reduce our redemption to what Jesus Christ did on the cross. Do not misunderstand me: his suffering and death are crucially important. He suffered and died for us, taking our curse upon himself. But there is more: Jesus Christ also lived a perfect life of obedience for us and in our place, a life of obedience which culminated in the cross. That all began with his agreeing to be sent into the World as the Mediator of the covenant of grace. Here too, Jesus Christ is our Saviour. Also in his obedience in the incarnation, all his righteousness is credited to us. That’s why it’s so critically important that we realize that he was not a passive participant in the incarnation. He was actively involved. He took upon himself true human nature. He made himself nothing. He actively took the very nature of a servant. And, loved ones, he did it all for us.
Again, here too, we see God coming down to us. We don’t climb our way up to him, but he comes to us and graciously brings us the benefits of redemption. Paul makes exactly that same point in Romans 10. He says that the righteousness that is by faith does not say, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down) or, “Who will descend into the deep? (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” Paul says, the righteousness that is by faith will have nothing to do with mankind climbing or descending, trying to manipulate Christ through human actions. Instead, he says, Christ has come down to us with his Word and is there to bless us, not to be manipulated. The gospel of grace says that God has done everything for our salvation. Now we’re called to simply believe it.
So, the Father sent the Son, the Son agreed to go and he actively went, now what about the Holy Spirit? Here we can consider what the angel said to Mary in Luke 1:35. He told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her. Similarly, in Matthew 1:20, an angel of the Lord told Joseph that the child Mary was carrying was “from the Holy Spirit.”
What exactly does that mean, though? Does it mean that the Holy Spirit contributed the male genetic material while Mary contributed the female? Does it mean that the Holy Spirit created a clone just from Mary’s genetic material? Brothers and sisters, these are questions to which we don’t know the answer. Quite honestly, the exact mechanics of the incarnation is a mystery. We could guess and we could speculate, but we simply don’t know. What we do know for sure is that the Holy Spirit was involved. His involvement insured that the child to be born would be both man and God, truly divine and truly human, but without sin. He worked a miracle through his divine power. To say anything more than that borders on being irresponsible and prying into the secret things of God.
Unfortunately, throughout history people have not been able to keep themselves from theorizing about the incarnation. Menno Simons was one such person. Simons was the founder of the Mennonites and he lived during the time of the Reformation in the 1500s. Simons believed that the human flesh of Jesus came from heaven, not from Mary. He believed that the Holy Spirit took this heavenly human flesh and simply implanted it into Mary. The result was that Mary was simply the vessel in which Jesus Christ came into the world. He was only her son in the sense that she gave birth to him. He did not actually have any genetic material from her.
That’s what the Belgic Confession is speaking about in article 18 when it talks about the heresy of the Anabaptists, “who deny that Christ assumed human flesh of his mother.” The Confession then goes on to give all the Biblical texts which show that these Anabaptists were wrong on this point. For instance, Hebrews 2:14 says that Christ shared our humanity, our flesh and blood. Acts 2:30 says that Christ would be a fruit of the body of David, according to the flesh. And so forth – you could go through all those texts for yourself in article 18 if you want.
Now we might wonder whether the Belgic Confession is over-reacting here. But this is actually what the Anabaptists taught and this teaching has always been condemned by the Christian church as heretical. For instance, the Athanasian Creed clearly states that “he is man from his mother’s substance.” To deny this is to put your salvation in jeopardy.
But then we might ask whether this teaching is still around today. The followers of Menno Simons are still around and, as I mentioned, they’re known as Mennonites. Most Mennonites have abandoned this particular teaching of Menno Simons, but there are still some who hold on to it. So, it is important for us to know about it and realize that this false teaching is not just a historical curiosity. It still exists.
Of far greater concern is the fact that there are growing numbers of Christians who say that the incarnation and virgin birth are irrelevant or unimportant. Among those is a popular author named Rob Bell. In his book Velvet Elvis, Bell says that the virgin birth isn’t really all that important and if DNA testing were to prove that Jesus had a real earthly father named Larry, we wouldn’t lose any significant part of our faith. He says our faith is more about the way we live than what we believe. Rob Bell doesn’t deny the incarnation and virgin birth of Christ, but he does deny that it has any real importance. To him, it’s like arguing over the authorship of the book of Hebrews. Whether Paul wrote Hebrews or not doesn’t really make a lot of difference.
So, what about it? Does what we confess in Lord’s Day 14 really make all that much of a difference for the Christian faith? The Heidelberg Catechism summarizes the Bible’s teaching on this and insists that this is a core Christian doctrine. In Isaiah 7:14, the Bible prophesied that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. The Bible tells us plainly that Mary did not have sexual relations with Joseph until after Jesus was born. The child she was carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit and this was God’s way to ensure that he would be born as truly God and truly man, yet without sin. And because of his innocence and perfect holiness, we have the benefit of having our sin covered. So, yes, the virgin birth does matter, because what’s at stake first of all is the truthfulness and integrity of Scripture. Rob Bell makes the assumption that DNA testing is somehow more trustworthy than the reliability of Scripture. That draws into question whether or not Scripture can be trusted. The virgin birth is also crucial because without it how is Jesus rightfully to be called “Immanuel,” God with us? That is, without the involvement of the Holy Spirit in his conception, how can he both God and man? How can he be the Mediator of the covenant of grace? He drew his divine nature from the Holy Spirit who conceived him in the womb of the virgin Mary. He drew his human nature from the virgin Mary. If Larry was his father, how could he still be true God? How could he endure the wrath of God against sin and deliver others from it?
Saying that the virgin birth is unimportant is like saying that the cross is unimportant or that the resurrection is unimportant – lose any of those things and you lose the whole of our salvation. It’s a package deal. There’s a very good reason why the Apostles’ Creed includes this doctrine among its twelve articles. As we confess in Lord’s Day 7, this is all part of what is promised us in the gospel by God.
So, God encourages us to know that he did all this, that he, the Triune God sent Christ to earth, for our benefit. We are conceived and born in sin – that has nothing to do with sex being evil, that’s just a way of saying that we come into existence as sinners, with the poison of sin in our veins – original sin. We are conceived and born in sin – but believing in Jesus Christ, we can be confident that all our sin, both our original sin and our actual sins – it’s all covered by Christ’s innocence and perfect holiness. God no longer sees our sin, but Christ’s perfect person and work. And so also the conception and birth of Christ testify to us of the good news of the gospel.
That gospel testifies of God who graciously comes down to those dead in sin. He comes down and draws undeserving people out of darkness and into his wonderful light. In Genesis 28, when God came down the stairway to Jacob, we see and hear the God of grace who makes beautiful gospel promises. Among those was the promise that all the peoples of the earth would be blessed through Jacob’s offspring. That promise was fulfilled when God became flesh and dwelt among us. In Jesus Christ and his holy conception and birth, the Triune God has brought good news for sinners. And what can we do, but stand in awe and praise him?
Let’s now do that in prayer:
O God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Father, we praise you for sending Jesus your only begotten Son, to save us and to bring us out of darkness and into your wonderful light. We praise you for your love in redeeming us from the curse of the law, from the judgment that we deserved.
Lord Jesus, we praise you for your willingness to come into this world and to take on our human nature. We worship you for your obedience and your suffering and death. We thank you that you did all of that for us.
Holy Spirit, we praise you for miraculously working the incarnation of our Lord Jesus. We adore you for bringing Immanuel to our world, for preserving him in innocence and perfect holiness.
LORD God, we are grateful today for the gospel of the incarnation. Lead us with your Word and Spirit to be more thankful each day, to grow in wonder at your amazing grace, to live lives of love and gratitude towards you. Please hear us in the name of our Immanuel, Jesus our Saviour. AMEN.
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service. Thank-you.
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