Born This Day in the City of David

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on the morning of December 24, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance (or see below).

What does Christmas mean to you? What is it all about?

Perhaps the best way to find out what Christmas means to each one of us is to think about what comes to mind when we think of Christmas. What are the images in your head? What does your nativity set look like? What are the sights of Christmas? Lights? Decorations? What are the sounds of Christmas? Songs? Bells? Laughter? What are the smells of Christmas? Something baking in the oven, like cookies? Spices?

Does anyone here think of Christmas and then imagine a dirty, smelly room and a baby crying?

Probably not, but that’s how the first Christmas was, when Jesus was born. From a worldly perspective, or a natural perspective, the birth of Jesus wasn’t special or attractive. There was nothing glorious about it. But God delights in doing amazing things in unexpected ways. And, as we’ll see this morning, the birth of Jesus is contrary to what we expect when we think of a King and a Savior.

We’re continuing our exploration of the Gospel of Luke this morning by considering only seven verses. We’ll be reading Luke 2:1–7. To give us a sense of context, let me quickly review what we have seen thus far in Luke.

Luke is one of the four Gospels in the New Testament of the Bible. Each Gospel is a biography of Jesus, focusing on who he was and what he did, particularly in his miracles, his teaching, his death on the cross, and his resurrection. Each Gospel has its own emphases, its own themes. Luke is interesting because it was written by someone who didn’t actually witness the events he wrote about. Luke says at the beginning of his Gospel that he wrote this history on the basis of eyewitness testimony. He used written documents, he interviewed people, and he combined those historical accounts of Jesus into this book of the Bible (Luke 1:1–4).

In the rest of the first chapter of Luke, he tells two related stories of how an angel of God announced the coming of two special children. The first child is John, better known as John the Baptist. He was born to an old couple who were previously unable to have children. John’s role would be to turn the hearts of the people of Israel back to God and to prepare the way for the coming of the second child (Luke 1:13–17, 75–79).

That second child is Jesus, the long-awaited anointed King, the Messiah or Christ. He is also called the “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32), or the Son of God. The angel Gabriel told Mary, a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, that Jesus would be supernaturally conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. This certainly was no ordinary baby.

Now, the time for Jesus’ birth has come. So, let’s read through this morning’s passage and then I’ll point out a few things this passage teaches us. Let’s read Luke 2:1–7:

1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.[1]

Here’s the first point I want to make: Luke is writing history. He situates the birth of Jesus during the time of Caesar Augustus, and also during time of Herod the Great. Herod was mentioned in the first chapter (Luke 1:5). Since he died in 4 B.C., this must have been prior to that time. Some of us may be surprised to learn that Jesus wasn’t born in the year zero, or the year 1 A.D. Well, there is no year zero. And the fact that he wasn’t born in A.D. 1 is due to the fact that the numbering of years didn’t come until centuries later. And Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25, either. The reason that date is used to observe Christmas is because it was the date of a festival in the Roman Empire. If you want to know more about those details, you can read the article that I wrote, the one that is inserted into your bulletin.[2]

What’s important for us to see this morning is that Luke gives us two indications of when Jesus was born. It was during Caesar Augustus’s reign. He was the first emperor of the Roman Empire and he reigned for forty years (27 B.C.–14 A.D.). When he was born in 63 B.C. he was named Gaius Octavius. He was the grandnephew of Julius Caesar. When Julius Caesar was murdered (in 44 B.C.), he had named Octavius as his adopted son and heir in his will. Octavius then joined forces with two other men, including Mark Antony, to defeat Julius Caesar’s assassins. And when Octavius and these two other men fought against each other, Octavius prevailed. He was later named Emperor by the Roman Senate.

I’ll talk a bit more about Augustus in a moment. For now, it’s important to see that he was the most powerful man in the world at this time. And it was during Augustus’s reign that Jesus was born.

Luke also mentions another name, Quirinius. He was governor of Syria a few years after Jesus was born. The reason he is mentioned is because Luke tells us that Augustus decided to have a registration, or census, taken in the Empire. Luke says this decree required “all the world” to be registered. This is a bit of hyperbole, but it’s a phrase that was used of the Roman Empire (see also Col. 1:6). It’s not far from the truth, since the Roman Empire included most of the world known to people like Luke. Augustus wanted this census to be taken in order to tax everyone living under his jurisdiction. In addition to gaining revenue for the Empire, it was a way of showing the people who was boss.

Some people think that this mention of Quirinius is an indication that Luke got his history wrong, because a census under Quirinius was taken in 6 A.D., some ten years after these events. I deal with this in the article I mentioned earlier. There are two ways of dealing with this issue to show that Luke wasn’t wrong. One, it’s possible that an earlier census was taken, or that this same census had begun years earlier and took a decade to complete. It’s possible that an earlier census was overseen by Quirinius prior to his time as governor of Syria. It’s also possible that the same census took a long time to complete, that it had begun under someone else’s oversight, and that it was finished by Quirinius years later. So, that way of dealing with the issue states that we don’t really know all the details of this period of history. That’s fairly common for the ancient world. We don’t know everything that happened. We have to rely on artifacts, most of which are ancient writings. Some things were never written down, and much of what was written has not survived decay and destruction.

The second way of dealing with this issue is to realize that perhaps verse 2 isn’t translated correctly. The ESV says, “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” But a footnote in the ESV says it could be translated, “This was the registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” That’s because the Greek word translated as “first” could also be translated as “before.”[3] If that is case, then Luke is not wrong at all. In fact, in Acts, the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, he tells of the effects that Quirinius’s census had on the Jewish people—it led to a rebellion (Acts 5:37). So, Luke is basically saying, “The Roman Emperor called for a census. No, this wasn’t that census, the one carried out by Quirinius. This was an earlier one.”

This census was taken according to Jewish customs, which had people return to their ancestral homes. Joseph, who was betrothed to Mary, was from the tribe of Judah and the line of David, the premier king of Israel who was from Bethlehem. Perhaps Joseph had inherited some property there. We don’t know. What we know is that this registration required him to go to Bethlehem. We also know he took Mary with him. Perhaps they had already been married yet did not consummate the marriage, and that is why they are said to be betrothed. If that is the case, she might have been required to be with Joseph. I’m sure he wanted his wife to be with him when she gave birth. So, for that reason, they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a journey that might have been about 90 miles or so.

The second thing I want to point out is that Luke probably wants us to compare Caesar August and Jesus. Augustus was the leader of the world’s superpower. He was the most powerful man in the world. He received the title “Augustus,” which means “Illustrious One,” or “Exalted One,” when he became Emperor. He was also known as Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus, or “Commander Caesar, Son of the God, the Illustrious One.” That is because Julius Caesar was viewed as being divine. Over time, the Roman Emperor was viewed as a god and he was worshiped.

Augustus was known for expanding the size of the Roman Empire to include more of Europe and Africa, for strengthening the Empire, and for establishing what was known as the Pax Romana, or “peace in Rome.” Ironically, that peace was achieved through violence. One way to achieve peace is to conquer your enemies with the sword until they submit.

If you asked anyone in the Roman Empire in those who days who was the most important person in the world, the most powerful person in the world, anyone would say, “Caesar Augustus.”

But little did they know that the most powerful and most important person who ever walked the planet was being born in an unexpected place. Jesus, the King of kings, was born to a couple of humble people in a strange place, among animals. And he was placed in a feeding trough.

I should say now that some of the details of the Christmas story that we imagine aren’t necessarily true. There’s no mention of Mary heading to Bethlehem on a donkey. She probably walked, which would have taken several days. And when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, they weren’t rejected by an innkeeper who said, “Bah! Humbug!” There is no innkeeper mentioned. In fact, the word that is translated here as “inn” might mean “guest room.”[4] Houses at that time were simple. They didn’t have many rooms. There would be a main room for the people who lived there, a room for guests (because hospitality was necessary in a world without hotels), and perhaps a separate room for animals. Animals were brought inside to be kept warm. Or perhaps the body heat of the animals would help keep the humans warm. Joseph and Mary probably found lodging in someone’s house, but they weren’t put in the guest room. No, they were in a room with animals, which is why there was a manger there. And they placed their baby in that manger, or feeding trough.

There couldn’t be a greater contrast between Augustus, the Emperor, and Jesus, the Messiah. I bet if you told people in their day that the most powerful king the world has known was about to be born, they would imagine that birth taking place in a palace in a major city. They would imagine that the parents were a king and queen. But Jesus was born to two ordinary people, and he was born among animals, probably in filth.

There’s a children’s Bible that we’ve read a number of times to our kids. It’s called The Big Picture Story Bible. (We have a few copies on the back table, available for anyone who wants them.) This is what that children’s Bible says about Caesar and Jesus:

This Roman ruler thought he was very important. One day he wondered to himself, How will everyone know that I am the great Caesar, the Roman ruler, the king of the world? I know! I will count all the people under my rule. Surely that will show the world how great I am. So Caesar, the Roman ruler, the king of the whole Roman world, began counting all his people to show everyone how great he was. What Caesar did not know was that God, the world’s true ruler, the king of the universe was getting ready to show everyone how great he was. . . . And do you know how God was going to do this? Not like Caesar . . . not proudly, by counting all his people, but humbly, by becoming one of his people. In the power of his Spirit, God would bring his forever king into the world as a baby![5]

God often does the unexpected. He uses the small, weak, poor people more often than he uses the powerful and the rich. God delights in showing his strength through human weakness. God seems to enjoy doing things in a way that we would never imagine.

In Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, she says of God,

51  He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52  he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate (Luke 1:51–52).

God was doing just that in Jesus’ birth. God even used Caesar to cause Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. If not for the census, Jesus would have been born in Nazareth. But it was prophesied that a ruler would come from Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2). God is greater than the greatest human beings, and even when they don’t know him and claim to be gods, he can use them to do his will.

Jesus is the one who brings about true peace, peace with God. He didn’t come the first time to set up a political kingdom, at least not in the way the world would imagine a political kingdom. He didn’t come with a big army, ready to conquer the Roman Empire. He could have done that. But he didn’t. The reason that Jesus came was to take care of our biggest need, our problem of sin. Sin is our rebellion against God. It’s more than just wrong actions. Sin includes wrong desires and wrong motivations. It’s a power that is at work within us, corrupting us from the inside out. What we need is someone who can remove our sin and make us right in God’s eyes.

In Matthew’s Gospel, an angel says to Joseph, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20–21). Jesus came to save his people from their sins. He does that by living the perfect life that we don’t live. Therefore, he fulfills God’s requirements for humanity. But he also dies a death in our place, taking the penalty for our sin. When Jesus was born, he was wrapped in swaddling cloths. After he was crucified, his body was wrapped in linen cloths (Luke 24:12; John 19:40). We need to remember that Christmas led to Good Friday, when Jesus died to pay for our sins. And that story leads to the good news of Easter, when Jesus rose from the grave and cast aside those cloths. He was unbound, having defeated the powers of sin and death.

Augustus created a peace of sorts through military strength. Jesus creates real peace through his own death. The greatest man who has ever lived was not proud. He was humble, laying down his own life.

And that leads me to the third point I want to make: God comes down to us in our filth. We often have a nice, pleasant view of Jesus’ birth, even though we know he was born among animals and placed in a manger. Our view of Christmas is sanitized. But the reality was that it was probably a filthy, foul-smelling environment.

Years ago, I read a book of Advent and Christmas readings. Some of these writings were by authors like C.S. Lewis and Martin Luther. Others were written by authors I didn’t know, some of whom were Catholics. One such author was Giovanni Papini.[6] He begins by saying Jesus was born in a real stable, one that was dirty, not the tidy stable of our imagination. He says that the only clean thing in the stable is the manger, where the hay is placed. (I can’t imagine the manger and its way was too clean, but I suppose it would be relatively clean.) Then he starts to describe how the hay is made. He writes,

Fresh in the clear morning, waving in the wind, sunny, lush, sweet-scented, the spring meadow was mown. The green grass, the long slim blades, were cut down by the scythe; and with the grass the beautiful flowers in full bloom—white, red, yellow, blue. They withered and dried and took on the one dull color of hay. Oxen dragged back to the barn the dead plunder of May and June. And now that grass has become dry hay and those flowers, still smelling sweet, are there in the manger to feed the slaves of man. The animals take it slowly with their great black lips, and later the flowering fields, changed into moist dung, return to light on the litter which serves as bedding.[7]

That’s a nice picture, isn’t it? Where is he going with this? Well, we must read on:

This is the real stable where Jesus was born. The filthiest place in the world was the first room of the only pure man ever born of woman. The Son of Man, who was to be devoured by wild beasts calling themselves men, had as his first cradle the manger where the animals chewed the cud of the miraculous flowers of spring.

It was not by chance that Christ was born in a stable. What is the world but an immense stable where men produce filth and wallow in it? Do they not daily change the most beautiful, the purest, the most divine things into excrement? Then, stretching themselves at full length on the piles of manure, they say they are “enjoying life.” Upon this earthly pigsty, where no decorations or perfumes can hide the odor of filth, Jesus appeared one night.[8]

We take the beautiful things that God has made and turn them into filth. And Jesus came into that filth. And, as we’ll see later in the Gospel of Luke, people acted beastly towards Jesus and they killed him. This was all God’s plan.

Think about that. God stoops down and enters into our filth. We don’t have to clean ourselves up to get to God. No, he rolls up his sleeves and comes into the muck of this life to rescue us. That is what is amazing about Jesus and about Christianity. Religions generally say, “Do this and you’ll be acceptable to God. Do this and you’ll get to heaven, Paradise, Nirvana, etc.” Christianity says, “You can’t do that. Your sin taints all your efforts. You can never make yourself pure enough. You can’t save yourself to get to God, so God must come down and save you.” That is why Christmas is amazing.

And we must see that Jesus lived a real life. Yes, it started with a miraculous conception. But he lived as a human being. As a baby, he soiled his diapers. And I’m sure he cried. The familiar hymn, “Away in a Manger,” says “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” But that is silly. We have no reason to believe that Jesus wouldn’t cry. He cried as an adult, why not as a child?

The sights of the first Christmas included animals and probably a very simple structure with a dirt floor. The smells include manure. The sounds included a woman in labor and a baby crying. God enters into this environment to save us. He enters into our chaos, our noise, our filth.

Here’s a fourth thing that we should see in this passage: The baby Jesus is placed in a feeding trough. This is where the food for animals would be placed. Perhaps this is no accident. If we turn all the beautiful things that God has made in this world into filth, perhaps we need better food. And Jesus provides that food. He is our spiritual food. Food sustains life. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Of course, this is a metaphor. We “feed” on Jesus by trusting that he alone gives us eternal life. He alone can save us from our sin. He alone gives us true life. He alone can satisfy the deepest cravings of our souls. It’s no wonder that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, for Bethlehem means “house of bread.”

No emperor could do this. No president or prime minister can. No businessman, no scientist, no professor, no celebrity, no entertainer, and no athlete can do this. Only Jesus can. He is the greatest person who has ever lived, yet he came humbly, stooping to our level to bring us up to his.

So, how should we respond to this message? I think there are two ways that people generally respond to Jesus. I suppose one way is the way of Caesar. We could rely on our own strength, too proud to see that we need a savior. We could say, “I find all that talk about being a beast and turning good things into crap offensive. I’m not like that.” Perhaps we have some knowledge that we do need a savior, but we don’t want to come under the authority of Jesus. If that is the case, we’re responding with the way of Caesar.

Another way of responding is the way of Joseph and Mary, and, as we’ll see tonight, the way of the shepherds. We can receive the gift of Jesus with joy and humility. We can submit our lives to God’s authority. We can wonder that God would come to save lowly people like us. I must say this as clearly as possible: no matter how much you’ve fouled up your life, no matter how much you’ve taken beautiful things and turned them into excrement, Jesus can save you. Turn to him and trust him. Learn about him, believe that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done. Confess your sins to him and ask him for cleansing.

Jesus came as a baby, but this is no kids story. We dare not sanitize the story by making it a cute little tale. No, this is a real, gritty story. And because of that, it’s a powerful story. Best of all, it’s true. Jesus, the light of the world, entered into our darkness. Jesus, the only pure human who has ever lived, came into our mire. Jesus, who gives us the water of life (the Holy Spirit), came to clean us up. He did this at a great cost to himself. He is the greatest Christmas gift, and his salvation comes to us without price. Will you receive this gift?

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. “When Was Jesus Born?” can be read at https://wbcommunity.org/when-was-jesus-born.
  3. πρῶτος.
  4. The Greek word is κατάλυμα.
  5. David Helm, The Big Picture Story Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 235–241.
  6. Giovanni Papini, “Ox and Ass,” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004).
  7. Ibid., 236.
  8. Ibid., 236–237.

 

Born This Day in the City of David (Luke 2:1-7)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 2:1-7. Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the most humble–and filthy!–circumstances. Jesus, the true King, is contrasted with the ruler of the Roman Empire, Caesar Augustus. Jesus came humbly into this world, stepping into our filth to rescue us from our sins.

Jesus Was Born of a Virgin

This sermon was preached on December 21, 2014 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance (see also below).
Additional thoughts related to the virgin birth.

Matthew 1:18–25

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.[1]

You know the story: in a quiet, unassuming, small town, an amazing event happens: a visitor from far away arrives in the form of a baby. He was sent by his father from a distant place on a mission. And though the world did not take notice of this baby, his human parents raised him, and he grew in strength and wisdom. One day, though, the world would know the identity of this incredible man. He would confront evil and protect the weak. He would stand for truth, justice, . . . and the American way. That’s right, I’m talking about Superman.

It’s interesting how many parallels there are between Superman and Jesus. Superman was sent by his father, Jor-El, to Earth from the planet Krypton, just as God the Father sent Jesus, his Son. Superman’s birth name is Kal-El, which is very close to what in Hebrew means “voice of God,” while Jesus is referred to as the Word of God (John 1:1). Kal-El, or Clark Kent, grows up in a small town in Kansas. Superman grew up in a small town in Galilee. The last Superman movie, Man of Steel, has many other allusions to the Jesus story, such as Superman being 33 when he starts his ministry—I mean, mission.[2] It’s interesting, but I don’t think it’s surprising, and perhaps it’s not a coincidence. I think there’s something in the human heart that realizes that things aren’t right. The world is not right. We’re not right. We need someone to help us. It’s no wonder superhero stories have been created. Superheroes are like us, but they’re much more. They’re more powerful, more heroic, more noble. We long for a hero like Superman who will come and make things right.

And we long for deliverance from the predicament that we’re in. A few weeks ago, we watched the movie, Interstellar. I don’t want to spoil the movie in case you plan on watching it, but it’s set in the not-too-distant future. Something bad is happening to the Earth: a blight is preventing crops from growing and the food supply is growing short. So a plan is hatched: a select group of astronauts and scientists will try to find another planet where humans can live. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll say this: the makers of the movie put their hope in science and humans. In this movie, there is no God; there are no superheroes. There are only humans, humans who have science, humans who are brave and risk everything for family, humans who evolve in ways that are impossible for any species to evolve. And it is this evolution that transcends the dimensions of time and space, helping humanity survive. We are our own saviors.

Granted, superheroes and sci-fi movies are fiction. But this hope for deliverance from the human condition and even death is found in the real world. Some people think that if only we get the right medicine or the right technology, or perhaps the right political leaders or public policies, we will make real progress. Consider the example of Ray Kurzweil. I first heard his name because he invented a high-end synthesizer, a musical keyboard. But he has also invented the flatbed scanner, among other things. He’s been likened to a modern-day Thomas Edison. He believes that immortality is possible, that by 2028, we will be able to add one year to our lives per year, effectively keeping death at arm’s length forever.[3] He also believes that by 2045, artificial intelligence and human intelligence will merge, so that we won’t be able to tell the difference between humans and computers. We’ll have little robots—nanobots—in our bodies, fighting infections, and in our brains, connecting our minds to cloud computing. And some people think the concept of God is far-fetched!

All of this shows that we know we need help, and we all put our hope in something, whether it’s a hero, or science, or God. I would say that this hope is religious, whether the object of faith is humanity, science, or a divine being. The makers of Interstellar and Ray Kurzweil cross the line from science to scientism, more of a philosophical position. We all put our trust in something. However, the human experience has been remarkably consistent for thousands of years: We live, we love, we fight, we die. In order to transcend our situation, we need something brand new—a brand new start, a brand new creation.

That is what the virgin birth of Jesus is all about. The Christian claim is a bold one: the human condition is in such bad shape that nothing short of God becoming man to rescue us will work. So, in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4), God the Father sent his Son, Jesus, to become man. He didn’t cease being God, but he added a human nature, so he could identify with us in every way. Yet, unlike us, he remained morally perfect, never disobeying God. He lived life the way that we should. And here’s the crazy thing: the only perfect person died on the cross, to bear the penalty for our disobedience. He did this so that everyone who is united to him by faith will be spared the penalty for sin: eternal death in hell. That’s the Christian claim.

Recently, I read this wonderful quote from a theologian, Don Carson:

If God had perceived that our greatest need was economic, he would have sent an economist. If he had perceived that our greatest need was entertainment, he would have sent us a comedian or an artist. If God had perceived that our greatest need was political stability, he would have sent us a politician. If he had perceived that our greatest need was health, he would have sent us a doctor. But he perceived that our greatest need involved our sin, our alienation from him, our profound rebellion, our death; and he sent us a Savior.[4]

And that is exactly what we see in the passage that was just read. In Matthew 1:18, we see that the Holy Spirit—the third Person of the Trinity—causes Mary, a virgin, to become pregnant. Joseph, who was in the process of becoming her husband, assumed that she had an affair with another man. He was ready to divorce Mary. But an angel told him that what had happened: this was no normal pregnancy, but a supernatural one. What was the purpose of this miraculous conception? That Jesus would save his people from sin. That’s what his name means. In Hebrew, his name would be Yeshua, which means “Yahweh is salvation,” or, “The Lord saves.” Matthew also tells us (in verses 22-23) that this pregnancy fulfills something that was predicted roughly seven hundred years earlier (in Isaiah 7:14), that a virgin would conceive, and the child would be called “Immanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” In other words, Jesus is God in the flesh.

The other biblical account of Jesus’ birth is found in Luke 1. In that passage, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will become the mother of Jesus, who “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” He will be the Son of God (v. 32, also v. 35). Then Gabriel continues, “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (vv. 32-33). Jesus is God the Father’s Son, which means he perfectly represents and obeys God. And he is the heir of David’s throne. That means he is the promised King who will reign over his people forever. This was something God promised to David a thousand years earlier.

So Jesus is a new type of man, a man completely unlike any other. Because he is God, he can be perfect in every way, and he is eternal and consistent: there never was a time, nor will there ever be a time, when Jesus didn’t or will not exist. And he will remain perfect and faithful in every way, for God does not change. But because he’s man, he can be our substitute. In a sense, he’s the one who comes in to the world and cleans up the mess that we’ve made. He fills in for us. Imagine you’ve committed a horrible crime and are going to go to jail for the rest of our life. Then picture the most successful person you can imagine—whoever that is for you— taking on that sentence for you, going to jail so you can remain free. But not only that, he gives you all his success: his money, his fame, his social standing, his family—everything. That’s what Jesus does for his people, those who have a relationship with him marked by trust, love, and obedience.

We see in this episode with Mary that God takes the initiative. Just as God takes the initiative in creating the universe, he does the same in saving his people. Mary wasn’t looking for this special role that God gave her. No one was expecting that God would become a man to save his people. But God did it all. This is how he works.

Now, there is quite a bit of confusion about the virgin birth and there are many objections. Let me deal with the confusion first. Let’s clear up a couple of obvious things first. The Gospel writers—Matthew and Luke—knew that this was not how people normally became pregnant. They knew this was a miracle. Luke was a doctor. He may not have known, with great specificity, how women became pregnant, but he knew that a human father was needed. The other obvious thing in this passage is that, as opposed various legends concerning mythical gods, God did not have sex with Mary. We don’t know exactly, scientifically speaking, Mary became pregnant. The Bible doesn’t speak in scientific language, because it was written roughly two thousand to thirty-five hundred years ago. But it’s clear that any sexual intercourse was not involved.

There are other confusions, however. The Catholic Church has taught at least two errors regarding Mary that are related to the conception of Jesus. The Catholic Church teaches that Mary was sinless. Catholic theologians thought that because she was the “Mother of God,” she would need to be without sin, for how else could Jesus be sinless? So they taught that she was sinless and that her own conception was “immaculate.” But this is not a teaching found in the Bible or in the earliest years of the church. It only became official Catholic doctrine fairly recently, in 1854.[5] The clear teaching of the Bible is that every human being—everyone outside of Jesus—has sinned (Rom. 3:23). What makes Jesus so unique is that he alone is sinless (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5). Even Mary realized that she needed a Savior, as she says in her famous song:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47).

Put quite simply, the Bible does not teach that Mary was sinless. Rather, it teaches that all humans are sinful and in need of a Savior. If Mary was sinless, she wouldn’t need salvation and she wouldn’t call God her Savior.

The Catholic Church also teaches that Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life.[6] Yet this claim is also unbiblical. First, Matthew 1:25 says, “But he [Joseph] had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.” That means they had normal sexual relations after Jesus was born. That’s important because the Bible does not teach that sex, within the context of marriage, is sinful. Sex is a good gift to be enjoyed. Second, the Bible refers to Jesus’ brothers (Matt. 6:3; 13:55; John 2:12; 7:3, 5, 10; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:5; Gal. 1:19). The Catholic Church tries to say that the term “brothers” can mean something besides literal, biological brothers.[7] That’s really a stretch, and against the clear meaning of the text. Furthermore, Luke 2:7 says Jesus was Mary’s “firstborn” son, not “only” son.

Nothing in the Bible elevates Mary to a status above the rest of humanity. She is special because God chose her for a special, unique role. And she is a great example of faith and submission to God’s will. But if we elevate Mary to a higher status, we take away from Jesus’ unique standing as the only sinless human being.

Those are the confusions. Next, let’s consider the objections. Some people say that the accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth in Matthew and Luke can’t be trusted. They say there are contradictions or inconsistencies between these accounts. I have written about some of these issues, and you can find those articles on our website. (If you missed last week’s sermon, I would encourage you to go back and listen to that message, too.) The two accounts are not contradictory. Rather, they’re complementary: together, they give us a fuller picture of what happened at Jesus’ birth.[8]

Some people think that because the rest of the New Testament is silent about Jesus’ conception and birth, these accounts must have been made up. Well, the only two birth narratives of Jesus are in Matthew and Luke, and nothing in the rest of the New Testament contradicts these accounts. Mark doesn’t deal with Jesus’ birth at all, and John starts off with something greater: Jesus is the preexistent “Word” of God who is God (John 1:1). So, this is a very weak objection.

Another objection, one that is far more common, is the claim that the story of Jesus is based on myths. This claim is becoming more popular, particularly on the Internet, but it’s been around for a while. Consider what Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1823 about Jesus’ birth:

The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.[9]

Minerva is the Roman goddess of wisdom who was born out of her father Jupiter’s head. So, Jefferson considered the virgin birth of Jesus just as mythical. By the way, Jefferson, when he was president, created his own version of the Gospels. He stripped away all the supernatural elements of the Jesus story, so there were no miracles and no resurrection. That’s the kind of Jesus he wanted: a moral reformer, not God.

Bertrand Russell, an atheist, wrote this: “I do not think the evidence for the Virgin Birth is such as would convince any impartial inquirer if it were presented outside the circle of theological beliefs he was accustomed to. There are innumerable such stories in pagan mythology, but no one dreams of taking them seriously.”[10] More recently, the argument that the story of Jesus’ birth is based on myths was advanced in a 2007 “documentary” that has been popular on Netflix, called Zeitgeist: The Movie. This film has includes a lot of false information.[11] Just to give you an idea of what I mean: one part of the film states that 9/11 was an “inside job,” orchestrated by the U.S. government. But this is the kind of stuff that circulates in the world.

It’s true that there are many stories of gods and goddesses who were conceived in odd ways. But these stories don’t really parallel the story of Jesus being conceived by a virgin through the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit. These other stories are very different. Consider Mithra, a Persian god. (The Greek name is Mithras.) He was supposedly born out of a rock. That’s hardly like the story of Jesus. If you actually look at the stories of gods and their births, you see that usually, a god (often Zeus) impregnates a woman who had been, up to that point, a virgin. But this is not the story of Jesus. I already said that the Bible does not depict God as having sex with Mary. That’s what Zeus does, but it’s not what God does.[12]

These stories are also clearly myths, not rooted in history the way the Gospels are. This part of one of those stories, found in Hesiod’s Theogony:

Now Zeus, king of the gods, made Metis his wife first, and she was wisest among gods and mortal men. But when she was about to bring forth the goddess bright-eyed Athene, Zeus craftily deceived her with cunning words and put her in his own belly, as Earth and starry Heaven advised. For they advised him so, to the end that no other should hold royal sway over the eternal gods in place of Zeus; for very wise children were destined to be born of her, first the maiden bright-eyed Tritogeneia, equal to her father in strength and in wise understanding; but afterwards she was to bear a son of overbearing spirit, king of gods and men. But Zeus put her into his own belly first, that the goddess might devise for him both good and evil.[13]

This is clearly not an historical account. Mary Jo Sharp observes, “In Hesiod’s story, there are no clues as to whether these events took place in a physical location that could be found on a map, or somewhere otherworldly. There aren’t any recognizable landmarks or historical names that might be cross-referenced with historical records of the time period.”[14] But Matthew and Luke do provide physical locations, as well as the names of political rulers and events, so that we have some knowledge of where and when Jesus was born.

So, the argument that the Jesus story is based on myths is false. There are no true parallels to Jesus’ miraculous conception in Mary’s womb. And the Gospels are historical documents, corroborated by other historians and archaeology.

Perhaps the biggest objection to this story is simply that it’s so miraculous. Anyone who believes that God doesn’t exist, or that miracles are impossible, simply can’t believe this story, regardless of the evidence. But what if there’s good reason to believe that God exists, and that he can do amazing things? Then what?

There are several arguments for the existence of God. One of them is called the cosmological argument. You can read all about it online at the church website: wbcommunity.org. Go to the “Media” tab and then click on “Articles” and you can read it there. The cosmological argument is about the universe, the cosmos. The basic argument is this:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

The first point is simple. You and I came into existence at one point, and we had causes: our parents. And they had causes: their parents. And so on. In other words, nothing comes from nothing. If something had a beginning, another person or thing caused that something to come into being.

The second point has been proven by science. The universe, at one point in time, came into existence. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many scientists assumed that the universe was eternal, that it had no beginning. But a few discoveries quickly challenged that assumption. In 1916, Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity. This theory was mostly concerned with gravity. Einstein was actually trying to prove that the universe was static, not expanding or contracting, but his equations actually showed that the universe was expanding. He didn’t like that finding, because it suggested that at some point, the universe had a beginning, so he fudged the numbers. (A few years later, a Russian mathematician, Alexander Friedmann, and a Belgian astronomer, George Lemaitre, both recognized that Einstein had made a mistake.)

Meanwhile, another astronomer, Edwin Hubble, was using the most powerful telescope of his day, and he noticed that galaxies were receding farther away. The farther away the galaxy, the faster it moved. All of this suggested that the universe was expanding. From this knowledge, scientists were able to create a model of the expansion of the universe. They suggested that at one point, long ago, the universe was extremely dense, and that a cosmic explosion resulted in the universe that is expanding today. In fact, at one point in time, all the mass, energy, and space of the universe came into existence.

Some physicists suggested that if this cosmic explosion actually happened, we would find some cosmic radiation on the edge of the universe. In 1965, a couple of physicists named Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered this cosmic background radiation. They later won the Nobel Prize for their discovery. Penzias said, “The best data we have concerning the big bang are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.”[15]

This is what Robert Jastrow, an astronomer and an agnostic, writes about this theory of the origin of the world:

It is not a matter of another year, another decade of work, another measurement, or another theory; at this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.[16]

So, the universe came into existence at some point. Therefore, it had a cause. Yet some scientists believe the universe created itself. But that’s not a scientific position. It’s a faith position. Personally, I think it takes a lot more faith to believe the universe created itself than to believe that God created.

The only cause that could create a universe like ours is God: an omnipotent, omniscient, intelligent being who is eternal.[17] God never came into existence. He has always been. That’s part of what makes him so unique. And if God can create a universe out of nothing—no matter or energy or anything else—why can’t he create a baby out of a virgin’s womb? The creation of the universe out of nothing, and the creation of a baby out of a virgin are unique acts, done for special purposes: to create the world, and to save the world.

I think the connection between the creation of the universe and the creation of baby Jesus is very important. In Matthew and Luke, there is a strong suggestion that when Jesus came into the world, he was a new creation. In the Genesis account of creation, the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters of the earth. The Holy Spirit “hovered” over Mary, coming upon her to create a baby. And when the baby grew up, he was baptized, to identify with sinful humans even though he never sinned. When he was baptized, the Holy Spirit came upon him, too, and God called him good, just as he called the universe he made good.[18]

The reason why Jesus became a baby was because that initial creation became spoiled through sin. Sin is disobedience, lawlessness. It’s a rejection of God. But it’s not just breaking individual laws and commands. Sin is a power. It’s a force. It’s what twists our desires and perverts our thoughts. And part of God’s punishment for sin is death and disease and everything else that’s wrong with the world.

So when Jesus became a baby, it was the start of a new creation. God was starting something brand new. Salvation couldn’t come from us. Fixing the world couldn’t happen just by improving our education, or our government, or our technology, or anything else. The solution had to come from God. He had to create something brand new. He had to create a man completely unlike any other man—or woman—who had ever been born. That’s who Jesus is—the new man, the perfect man.

When he entered into the universe, the creator entered into his own creation. That’s like William Shakespeare entering into one of his own plays so that he could die in place of, say, Hamlet. It’s an amazing thought. That shows the extent that God will go to rescue his people.

There’s much more to say about all of this. If you want to learn more about who Jesus is, keep coming. Keep listening to these sermons and reading some of the resources I’ve put on our website.

But I want you to think about this: If God can create the universe out of nothing, and if he can create a baby out of a virgin’s womb, he can do anything. There is nothing he can’t fix, and there’s no one he can’t save. That’s why the Bible uses the language of creation when it talks about salvation. Consider 2 Corinthians 4:6: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” The God who can make the universe out of nothing can take spiritually dead people—which is how all of us start out—and make them into new creations. He can do that with anyone.

No matter what issue you are facing today, it is not too big for God. No problem is too big for him to solve. That doesn’t mean that he will solve everything in this life. Unless Jesus returns, we will all die. But that’s not the end of the story. The Bible ends with a recreation of the universe. The new creation won’t have death, disease, decay, pain, hunger, thirst, or any other bad thing. It will just be God and his people in a perfect world.

This universe is broken. Sometimes, it feels cracked, distorted, without hope and without sense. But God didn’t give up on his creation. God came down to us. He came into filth of this world, in the midst of animals. He lowered himself in order to lift us up. With such a God, there is always hope. That’s what Christmas is about: the promised hope of rescue came to earth in the form of a special baby.

If you don’t know God, call on him today. Ask him to make you into something new, a new creation. Ask him to transform your life. Ask him to give you faith so you can trust him.

If you’re already a Christian, what are some of the impossible issues you’re facing today? Bring them to God. Ask him to solve your problems. Ask him for strength. Ask him for wisdom. Ask him to create something new in your life.

Consider what the angel Gabriel said to Mary: “For nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, the Scripture quoted herein is taken from the New International Version (1984).
  2. Jordan Hoffman, “‘Man of Steel’ No Longer Man of Shtetl?” Times of Israel, June 13, 2013, http://www.timesofisrael.com/man-of-steel-no-longer-man-of-shtetl/ (accessed December 20, 2014). For other parallels between Superman and Jesus, see Austin Gentry, “Superman Parallels Jesus in 11 Ways,” Gospel Focus 289, https://gospelfocus289.wordpress.com/2013/06/15/superman-parallels-jesus-in-11-ways/ (accessed December 20, 2014).
  3. Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., “Will Google’s Ray Kurzweil Live Forever?” The Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2013, http://www.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324504704578412581386515510?mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB10001424127887324504704578412581386515510.html (accessed December 19, 2014).
  4. D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1992), 109.
  5. Pope Pius IX taught this doctrine in his encyclical, Ineffabilis Deus, dated December 8, 1854. In part, it says, “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” The entire encyclical can be read at http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius09/p9ineff.htm (accessed December 18, 2014). See also Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., §491-93 (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 123–124.
  6. This doctrine can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church §499-500, 126. Even stranger, they claim that the birth of Jesus was supernatural. So Ludwig Ott, a Catholic theologian, claims, “Mary gave birth in miraculous fashion without opening of the womb and injury to her hymen, and consequently without pain” (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, ed. James Canon Bastible, trans. Patrick Lynch [Rockford, IL: Tan, 1960], 205, quoted in Gregg R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014], 133 n. 52).
  7. Catechism of the Catholic Church §500, 126.
  8. Regarding the historical reliability of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, many biblical scholars have noted the Semitic character of Luke 1:5-2:52. Luke was a Gentile who wrote elegant Greek. After beginning his Gospel account, the language reflects a Hebraic background. Many scholars think that this reflects Luke’s sources. According to I. Howard Marshall (The Gospel of Luke, The New International Greek Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978], 46), “the narratives [of Luke 1-2] betray a Semitic background to a degree unparalleled elsewhere in Lk.-Acts. The whole atmosphere of the story is Palestinian. The language too is strongly Semitic.” Regarding the poems, or songs, he writes, “the case for postulating Hebrew originals for the canticles is very strong” (47). He concludes, “It appears most probable that Luke had sources at his disposal, and that these came from Palestinian Jewish Christian circles which had links with the family of Jesus” (48-49). Therefore, it would appear that Luke used early, original, eyewitness sources in constructing his history of Jesus’ birth.
  9. Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823, http://www.beliefnet.com/resourcelib/docs/53/Letter_from_Thomas_Jefferson_to_John_Adams_1.html (accessed December 18, 2014).
  10. Bertrand Russell, “ Can Religion Cure Our Troubles?” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Touchstone, 1957), 200.
  11. For a thorough refutation of the claims of Zeitgeist, see Mark W. Foreman, “Challenging the Zeitgeist Movie: Parallelomania on Steroids,” in Come Let Us Reason: New Essays in Christian Apologetics, edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012). By presenting false information about Horus, an Egyptian god, and other mythological gods such as Mithra(s), the movie tries to show that Jesus is but a myth. Here’s an example of the poor reasoning of the film: other gods were son gods. They were associated with the son. Jesus is known as the Son of God. Now, that sun/son wordplay works nicely in English, but in Greek, the language of the New Testament, the term for sun is helios and the term for son is huios. These don’t sound the same. Jesus is referred to as light in the Bible (most prominently in John 8:12), but his being Son has nothing to do with the sun. His sonship represents the perfect relationship he has with the Father: he perfectly represents God, and obeys him. The fact that Jesus is light metaphorically refers to the way he exposes and drives away darkness. It has to do with the revelation of truth and righteousness. These are not mutually exclusive ideas, but they are not identical either.
  12. Mary Jo Sharp, “Is the Story of Jesus Borrowed from Pagan Myths?” in In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture, edited by Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013) 193-94: “Here are the so-called virgin births of five of the gods who are frequently compared to Christ: Mithras is born out of a rock on the banks of a river under a sacred fig tree. Adonis is born out of a myrrh tree. Dionysius is produced from an incestuous relationship between the god Zeus and his daughter Persephone. Osiris is the product of an affair between an earth god and a sky goddess. And while Osiris and Isis are fetuses within the womb of the sky goddess, they have intercourse and produce Horus.”
  13. Hesiod, Theogony, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm (accessed December 17, 2014).
  14. Sharp, “Is the Story of Jesus Borrowed,” 188.
  15. This was reported in The New York Times, March 12, 1978; quoted in Edgar Andrews, Who Made God? (Carlisle, PA: EP Books, 2009), 94.
  16. Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton & Company, 1992), 106-107.
  17. It should be noted that many atheistic scientists and philosophers deny that God exists. They try to find other ways of explaining the universe. The Oxford-educated atheistic philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett writes, “What does need its origin explained is the concrete Universe itself. . . . It . . . does perform a version of the ultimate bootstrapping trick; it creates itself ex nihilo [out of nothing]. Or at any rate out of something that is well-nigh indistinguishable from nothing at all.” (Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon [New York: Viking, 2006], 244, quoted in William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008], 151.) This claim is not scientific, and it expresses a faith position, one that excludes the existence of God.
  18. There are also connections between Jesus and Adam, who was formed out of dust through the “breath of life” (most likely the Holy Spirit). See Genesis 2:7. It is no accident that Jesus is called the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45).

 

He Who Is Mighty Has Done Great Things

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on December 10, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance (see also below).

 

Our lives can change in a moment. A single phone call, email, or text message could give us news that would alter our lives forever. A chance encounter with someone could do the same thing.

Have you ever noticed that many movies begin with an average person who gets caught up in some kind of intrigue? Perhaps the person witnesses a murder and then becomes a target for the bad guys. Or maybe the person meets a superhero or an alien. That’s what happened when Elliott met E.T., or when Jonathan and Martha Kent found the infant Kal-El, otherwise known as Superman.

Today, we’re going to look at a story of a very average young woman, perhaps a teenage girl, who is visited by an extraordinary being. She is given news that not only changes her life, but also changes the whole world. Of course, I’m talking about the virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Last week, we began reading the Gospel of Luke together. We saw that Luke begins his history by saying that while others had compiled narratives regarding Jesus, he saw fit to write an “orderly account” of what God had done. He says that his account is based on eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1–4).

Luke begins his story with an old priest and his wife, who was barren. While Zechariah is serving in the temple in Jerusalem, the angel Gabriel tells him that his wife will have a child named John, who will turn people to God. John the Baptist will tell people to get ready for the coming King of Israel, the Messiah.

This week, we learn that Elizabeth’s relative, Mary, also receives news from the angel Gabriel. But her news is even more unbelievable. In Elizabeth’s case, her pregnancy was a miracle because she was past child-bearing age and had previously been unable to have children. But Elizabeth still conceived in the usual way. However, Mary’s pregnancy is more miraculous, because she had never “known” a man before.

Let’s find out what happens to Mary and how she reacts. We’ll do that by reading Luke 1:26–33:

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”[1]

In last week’s passage, we found out that Mary’s relative, Elizbeth, had become pregnant and had hidden her pregnancy for five months. It is now the sixth month of her pregnancy. The same angel, Gabriel, comes to Mary, who lived in a small city called Nazareth, which was at least 65 miles north of Jerusalem, where Gabriel had appeared to Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah. Put it this way: if Jerusalem was Boston, Nazareth was Oakham. What, you’ve never heard of Oakham? I had never heard of it until yesterday, when I looked on a map and found that it’s about 65 miles west of Boston. The point is that Nazareth was Nowheresville.

And Mary wasn’t anyone particularly special. She was a virgin, probably still a teenager, and betrothed to a man named Joseph, who just happened to be of the tribe of Judah and the house of David. Being betrothed to someone was similar to being engaged, but much more serious. When a man was betrothed to a woman, he would pay the father of the woman a bride price, there would be witnesses, and the man would be known as the woman’s husband. Yet the marriage ceremony and the consummation of the marriage would come about a year later. In order to break off a betrothal, there needed to be a divorce. The point is that Mary was betrothed to Joseph but they were not married and had not consummated their relationship.

One day, this ordinary young woman was visited by an extraordinary being, an archangel. I say that Mary is “ordinary” because there is no indication in this passage or in the whole Bible that she is anything other than a normal person. This is one place where Roman Catholics and Protestants part ways. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Mary had an “Immaculate Conception” that made her free from all sin. Strangely, this didn’t become official Catholic doctrine until 1854, when Pope Pius IX declared:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of
Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.[2]

The Catholic Church also teaches, “By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.”[3] However, there isn’t even a hint of this in the Bible. Instead, Gabriel says that Mary is “favored” or “graced.” She has been a recipient of God’s grace, but that doesn’t mean she was sinless. In fact, the Bible is quite clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). All, except for Jesus. What makes Jesus so special is that he alone didn’t sin.

I said this last week, but it bears repeating: God made a good world that became corrupted by sin when the first human beings turned away from him. When that happened, sin entered into the world. Sin is more than just bad choices. Sin is a power that has deep roots within each one of us. It distorts our desires. We were made to know, love, and worship God. But our sinful nature causes us to love everything but God. Instead of making God the center of lives, we make something else—something inferior—our objects of worship. We find our comfort, safety, pleasure security, meaning, and hope in something other than God. That is why God sent a Savior, his Son, to rescue us. There is no indication in the Bible that Mary was any different than you and me in that regard. She needed a Savior just as much as we do.

But Mary “found favor,” or grace, with God. The same is said of Noah (Gen. 6:8), and we have no reason to believe Noah was sinless. But Mary, like Noah, was chosen for a special purpose. Gabriel says she will conceive and bear a son named Jesus. We’re not absolutely sure, but the name Jesus may mean “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.”[4] At any rate, Gabriel says he will be great and will be called “son of the Most High.” In other words, this child Jesus is the Son of God.

Gabriel also says that Jesus will inherit the throne of David, the premiere King of Israel, who lived about a thousand years earlier. God told David that he would have a son who would reign forever (2 Sam. 7:12–13). The prophets promised that this offspring of David would be the perfect king, reigning with “peace . . . justice and . . . righteousness.” But not only that, he would be called “Mighty God” and “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6–7).

For those of us who are familiar with the Bible, we get so used to this message that we tend to forget how truly awesome it is. Imagine that you live in Nowheresville and you’re a Miss Nobody, and you’re told that your child will be the Son of God and a king who reigns forever. Forever is a long time. How can a mere human being reign forever? How can a mere human being also be called the Son of God? How could anyone believe such news?

Mary didn’t seem to doubt that this could be true. She might not have fully realized that this child would also be God, that, somehow, the eternal Son of God could be joined to a human nature. But she had a question. She wondered how she could have a child when she was just a virgin. So, Gabriel tells her. Let’s read verses 34–38:

34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Mary literally says, “How will this be, since I don’t know a man?” She knows that in order to have children, a woman has to “know” a man sexually. Since she hasn’t known a man to this point, she’s wondering how she can have this special child. Will this child come from Joseph?

Gabriel gives her the answer. The Holy Spirit will “come upon” her. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity, along with the Father and the Son. I hate to say this, but in our sex-obsessed culture, I must: There is no hint here of the Holy Spirit having sex with Mary, though there are myths in the ancient world of gods having those kinds of relationships with women. There is no hint of such strange things in the Bible, and the Holy Spirit is immaterial, having no body. However, the idea of the power of God “overshadowing” is present in Scripture. That Greek verb is used in the translation of the Old Testament when the glory cloud “settled” on the tabernacle (Exod. 40:35). The idea also reminds us of the beginning of the Bible. The Bible famously begins with these words: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Then there is the second verse: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Mary’s womb, we might say, was “void,” until the Spirit of God “hovered” over it and caused life to emerge. Jesus is a new creation. The first creation was spoiled by sin, but Jesus will be unspoiled by sin. He will be holy, not because Mary was first unstained by sin. No, the reason why Jesus is holy is because he has a supernatural conception. This breaks the power of sin that has been passed on from generation to generation. This is the true miraculous conception. Without having sex, Mary became pregnant because of the power of the Holy Spirit.

People find this hard to believe. Are we really supposed to believe that a virgin could become pregnant? I gave a more thorough defense of the virgin birth three years ago in a sermon called “Jesus Was Born of a Virgin.” You can find that on our website under the sermon series, “Who Is Jesus?”[5] I would encourage you to listen to that sermon or read it to find out more. But if you’re wondering why something like this should be believed, let me ask you, how did the universe get here? The best mainstream science suggests that the universe began at one point in time. All matter, energy, space, and even time itself have a beginning. How did this come about? Many atheists try to dodge the question of the origin of the universe by suggesting that this universe is part of an endless cycle of universes being born and dying, but that just pushes the question further back. If that were true—and we have no evidence that it is—who or what sustains that cycle? Others posit the so-called “multiverse theory,” that our universe just happens to be one of countless parallel universes. But who created them? At least Tufts University professor Daniel Dennett was honest enough to make the claim that the universe “perform[s] a version of the ultimate bootstrapping trick; it creates itself ex nihilo [out of nothing]. Or at any rate out of something that is well-nigh indistinguishable from nothing at all.”[6]

So, which claim is more reasonable, that the impersonal, material universe created itself, or that a personal, all-powerful, eternal, immaterial God created a material universe out of nothing? And if God can create a whole universe out of nothing, what is creating a baby out of a virgin?

Let’s just say we believe the universe did create itself out of nothing, or that it’s always been around in some form or another, and that’s just the way it is. What about the origin of life? We now know that even simple life forms are incredibly complex. The simple single-celled organism, with its DNA and molecular machines, is spectacularly complex. What accounts for this?

In the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Ben Stein interviews two atheists. One is Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science and a former professor at Florida State University. Stein (perhaps best known as the teacher who keeps saying “Bueller? Bueller?” in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) asks Ruse how life emerged from an inorganic world. Ruse says one popular theory is that life emerged “on the backs of crystals.”[7] Richard Dawkins, another atheist and an evolutionary biologist, believes that life on earth could have been “seeded” by a “higher intelligence” from somewhere else in the universe. In other words, aliens could have planted life here.[8] Seriously. He doesn’t say how alien life started, so this again pushes the question back further. What is more believable? That a highly intelligent, all-powerful God designed life, that life emerged by chance “on the backs of crystals,” or that aliens—whom we have never seen and whose existence requires its own explanation—planted life on earth?

Yes, it may be hard to believe that a virgin could conceive, but I think it’s harder to believe that this universe could come from nothing or that life, with all its rich complexity, could emerge from some unintelligent, unguided process, or through the actions of ALF or E.T. If God can create a universe out of nothing and life where there was none, he can cause a virgin to become pregnant.

Perhaps the virgin birth isn’t the biggest miracle. Just yesterday I happened to read some of Martin Luther’s words on Mary. According to Luther, Bernard of Clairvaux said that there were three miracles in this passage. Luther writes, “Saint Bernard declared there are here three miracles: that God and man should be joined in this child; that a mother should remain a virgin; that Mary should have such faith as to believe that this mystery would be accomplished in her.” Then, Luther adds, “The last is not the least of the three. The virgin birth is a mere trifle for God; that God should become man is a greater miracle; but most amazing of all is that this maiden should credit the announcement that she, rather than some other virgin, had been chosen to be the mother of God.”[9]

What’s amazing about Mary is that not that she was sinless or remained a virgin for her whole life. Neither of these things are true. What is amazing is that she believes. After she hears this news, she says the famous words that would inspire the Beatles: “let it be.” She says, “let it be to me according to your word.” Mary is a model of faith, a model of submitting to God’s plans for her life.

After the angel speaks to her, Mary goes to her relative, Elizabeth. Gabriel had told Mary that Elizabeth was pregnant; perhaps Mary wanted to see that this was true. Elizabeth and Zechariah lived somewhere south of Jerusalem, some 80–100 miles away from Nazareth. This was no small trip for someone who would have to walk. Let’s read verses 39–45:

39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

Elizabeth is pregnant, with John the Baptist in her womb. And when Elizabeth greets Mary, John leaps. John’s role is to point to Jesus, and he even does this before he is born. The Bible consistently shows that the unborn are human beings.

Elizabeth, like John, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she says that Mary is blessed. Elizabeth also says that Mary’s child is blessed, and she wonders why “the mother of my Lord should come to” her. Elizabeth calls Mary’s baby “my Lord.” What a strange thing to say of an unborn baby! By my count, the word “Lord” is used twenty-seven times in the first two chapters of Luke. In the other twenty-six times, the word clearly refers to God. I think this is a hint that Elizabeth somehow knew this unborn child was not just the Messiah, an anointed king, but also God. Elizabeth also says that Mary is blessed because she “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Mary is blessed to be chosen as the mother of Jesus, and she is blessed that she believed.

I have to add the following as evidence that Mary is not a sinless superwoman. Later in the Gospel of Luke, a woman in a crowd says to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” (Luke 11:27). Now, this would be the perfect time for Jesus to say, “Yes, my mother is blessed because she is full of grace, immaculately conceived, without sin, and still a virgin!” But does he say that, or anything like it? No. He says, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep” (Luke 11:28). Elsewhere in Luke, Jesus is told his mother and brothers are waiting to see him (Luke 8:19–20). Jesus says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).

The point is that Mary believed God’s word and responded in faith, and that is what makes her blessed. And those who respond today to God’s word are blessed. We would do well to follow Mary’s lead.

Mary’s responds to Elizabeth’s blessing with a song, often called the Magnificat, after the Latin translation of the first word in Greek, “magnifies.” Mary probably didn’t break out into singing, but somewhere along the line her words were put into a poem. This happens often in the Bible. Truth can be expressed in verbatim reporting, but the essence of truth can often be captured in artistic form, in a poem, a song, a painting.

Let’s read verses 46–56:

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48  for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49  for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50  And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51  He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52  he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53  he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54  He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55  as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.

We can break Mary’s song down into three parts. First, she praises God for what he has done for her. She says she “rejoices in God my Savior,” which shows that she, too, needed salvation. She realizes that she is of “humble estate.” God has a way of choosing the unlikely, the nobodies, to do his will. He who is mighty has done great things for Mary, just as he has done great things for all who put their trust in him.

Second, Mary praised God more broadly for how he turns the tables. He scatters the proud and brings down the mighty from their positions of power. Yet he exalts the humble and fills the hungry with good things.

Third, Mary praises God for helping Israel. God keeps his promises. He had promised Abraham, the father of all the Israelites, that he would bless the world through his offspring. Mary realizes that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the promises to Israel. Jesus is the true offspring of Abraham. Jesus is the only one who kept the law given to Israel at Mount Sinai. Jesus is the true King, the Son of David who will reign forever.

Now that we’ve gone through this passage, we need to ask ourselves what it teaches us and how we can live in light of it.

First, this passage teaches us that salvation cannot be achieved except through supernatural intervention. Salvation cannot be achieved apart from a miracle. Salvation cannot be achieved apart from God coming to us. I realize that some people mock the idea of miracles. Some people think God doesn’t answer prayers. Some people think there is no God at all. But if there is no God who can intervene in our lives, there is no hope. There is no life after death. There is no hope that the world will be restored so that the curse of death is reversed. There is no hope that the brokenness of this world, including the brokenness in our bodies, minds, and hearts, can be healed and made whole.

Salvation from a world of death, from our own sin, and from God’s just and right judgment of that sin can only be found in Jesus. When Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb, he was the beginning of a new creation. As the Son of God, he has always existed, but when he became Jesus, he added a human nature and became the God-man. He is the bridge between heaven and earth, between God and us.

This message humbles us, because it says we can’t save ourselves. The only way to be made right with God is for God to come to us. Pastor Tim Keller says this:

Christmas is the end of thinking you are better than someone else, because Christmas is telling you that you could never get to heaven on your own. God had to come to you. It is telling you that people who are saved are not those who have arisen through their own ability to be what God wants them to be. Salvation comes to those who are willing to admit how weak they are.[10]

The second thing this passage teaches us is that God humbles the proud and exalts the humble. Those who exalt themselves, who try to make themselves look great, will fall. Think of those atheists who reject the evidence that points to a Creator. They end up looking foolish, talking about crystals and aliens. But those who humble themselves and accept God’s offer of salvation will be made great. Jesus is the perfect example of that. Though he was and is God, he humbled himself to become a lowly human being, born to a very humble woman. He was raised a carpenter’s son in Nowheresville and lived a humble life. And he died a humiliating death when he was crucified. He was viewed as the scum of the earth. But after he died, he rose from the grave and is now exalted in heaven. Even though the world doesn’t see it, Jesus is King. He reigns forever. Will you humble yourself and come under his reign? Does Jesus rule over your life?

God still causes the proud to stumble. God still cares about the humble and the weak. Many people who have been power and powerless have found great hope in this message. They trust that one day they will be exalted because they have believed.

The third thing this teaches is the nature of faith. Mary is a wonderful example. We shouldn’t make too much of Mary. The story really isn’t about her. But she is a model of faith. She hears God’s message and she believes it. She says, “Do what you will. I am your humble servant. Let it be your will, not mine.” That is what true faith looks like. Faith trusts. Faith submits. Faith acts. If we have the faith of Mary, we are just as blessed as Mary. Mary realized that God had come to hijack her life, to take it over, and she agreed. Do we have that attitude? If we do, we are blessed. Jonathan Edwards, the famous Massachusetts pastor and theologian, once said, “’Tis more blessed to have Christ in the heart than in the womb. ’Tis more blessed to have Christ in the arms of faith and love than in the arms or at the breast as the virgin Mary had.”[11] You can have Jesus living in you through faith.

The fourth thing this passage teaches is that God doesn’t always act in flashy ways. Think about the differences between how God spoke to Zechariah and Mary. Zechariah was an old man, a man of status. Mary was a young woman. Zechariah was a priest. Mary had no position. Zechariah was in the big city of Jerusalem. Mary was in the small town of Nazareth. Zechariah’s son, John, was filled with the Holy Spirit even in the womb. But Jesus, Mary’s son, was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Zechariah and Elizabeth were said to be righteous, obeying the law. Yet Mary is a recipient of God’s grace. By the standards of Jewish people, Zechariah had greater standing, and there was nowhere that God was more present than in the temple in Jerusalem. But God is not limited. He doesn’t act only in big cities and in impressive cathedrals.

When God comes to us, it might be in small ways. It might start by hearing a sermon, or reading a passage in the Bible. It might start through a prayer. We might not feel anything. But God works through humble people and God often begins something big by starting with something small. Salvation is a miracle. Faith is a miracle. Faith often starts with a small realization that this message about God is true. Faith starts with small acts of trust. And if you want that miracle of salvation, ask God for it. No matter who you are, not matter what you’ve done, you can be forgiven of your sins against God. Jesus came to seek and save lost rebels against God like you and me. He died to pay for the sins of the worst criminals, if they would turn to him in faith. Do you want to start anew, to be a new creation? Ask God for it. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Pope Pius IX taught this doctrine in his encyclical, Ineffabilis Deus, dated December 8, 1854. The entire encyclical can be read at http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius09/p9ineff.htm (accessed December 18, 2014). See also Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., §491 (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 124.
  3. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §493, p. 124.
  4. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 129–130.
  5. “Jesus Was Born of a Virgin,” December 21, 2014, https://wbcommunity.org/jesus.
  6. Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006), 244, quoted in William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 151.
  7. You can view this exchange at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOPkXFTd5Rs.
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOPkXFTd5Rs.
  9. Martin Luther, “The Maiden Mary,” in Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus: Experiencing the Peace and Promise of Christmas (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 26.
  10. Tim Keller, “The Gifts of Christmas,” in Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus, ed. Nancy Guthrie (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 42.
  11. Jonathan Edwards, “To Be More Blessed Than Mary,” in Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus, ed. Nancy Guthrie (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 59.

 

He Who Is Mighty Has Done Great Things (Luke 1:26-56)

Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 1:26-56, which includes the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will have a child named Jesus who is “Son of the Most High.” Mary was just an ordinary woman whom God chose for a special purpose. Her acceptance of this role is a great example of faith. Also considered are reason why we should believe that the virgin conception/birth is true.

Christ Alone

This sermon was preached on November 19, 2017 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance.

Let me state an obvious truth: Christianity stands or falls with Jesus Christ. The whole definition and shape of Christianity begins and ends with Jesus. A distorted understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done produces a distorted Christianity. And a distorted Christianity is like fool’s gold: it’s worthless. Anything less than the real Jesus is an imaginary Jesus, and an imaginary Jesus can’t save us from condemnation or grant us eternal life.

Today, we continue our series on the Protestant Reformation by looking at the principle “Christ Alone.” “Christ Alone” means that Jesus is unique. He is the unique, one of a kind Son of God. He is the only God-man. He is the only mediator between God and sinful human beings. His death on the cross is the only sacrifice needed to pay for sins. His righteous life is the only righteousness that perfectly meets God’s standards and fulfills God’s intent for human beings. There is no other way to know God truly and be reconciled to him except through Jesus, because there is no one like Jesus and there is no one who has done what Jesus has done.

Martin Luther, the great trailblazer of the Reformation, came to this position in 1518: “I teach that people should put their trust in nothing but Jesus Christ alone, not in their prayers, merits, or their own good deeds.”[1] Luther was a Catholic monk, priest, and professor who protested the views of the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church taught—and teaches today—that God’s grace is mediated through the Church, and it comes down from God, through Christ, by the Spirit, and also by means of saints, the Pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, and sacraments, such as baptism, the eucharist, and penance.

I don’t want to get bogged down in talking about Roman Catholic Theology this morning, but the fact is that though they have the same views on the person or identity of Jesus, their teachings seem to undermine his uniqueness and the sufficiency of his work. According to the Bible, Jesus is the only sinless human being who has ever lived (Heb. 4:15; 7:26; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5; cf. Rom. 3:9–20, 23). According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Mary benefited first of all and uniquely from Christ’s victory over sin: she was preserved from all stain of original sin and by a special grace of God committed no sin of any kind during her whole earthly life.”[2] None of that is found or even suggested in the Bible. In fact, Mary recognized that she needed a Savior (Luke 1:47).

While the Bible recognizes that “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5),[3] the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that Mary is also a mediator. This is what it says:

This motherhood of Mary in the order of grace continues uninterruptedly from the consent which she loyally gave at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, until the eternal fulfilment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation.… Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix.[4]

There are a number of problems with this statement, but the ones that are greatest come at the end. We’re told she has a “saving office” and that her intercession “bring[s] us the gifts of eternal salvation.” This is completely unbiblical. Only God saves. According to the Bible, God the Father predestined us and sent God the Son to save us; God the Son added a second nature of humanity, lived the perfect life, died on a cross to pay for our sins, and rose from the grave; and God the Spirit applies the benefits of Jesus’ work to us. Yes, God chooses to use sinful human beings to preach the gospel and to pray for us, but he doesn’t need to use them. He chooses to, but he doesn’t rely on them. And they aren’t sinless, nor do they have a “saving office.”

What bothers me most about that statement regarding Mary is that she is given titles that belong only to God. Jesus and the Holy Spirit are called advocates or helpers (1 John 2:1; John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7).[5] And Jesus is the only mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). So, I view the Church’s statements about Mary to be blasphemous.

In Catholic theology, the Church is the body of Christ in a very real, and not merely metaphorical, way. Therefore, salvation is mediated through the Church and through the sacraments. Furthermore, sin must be atoned for not just by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, but also through sacraments and in purgatory. Again, this is against Scripture, which tells us that Jesus finished his atoning work on the cross (John 19:30). We cannot add to Jesus’ perfect work on our behalf. To even suggest that is to undermine his work.

Though we are surrounded by Roman Catholics today, Catholic theology is not the only threat to a true understanding of Jesus and his work. We are also surrounded by many fictional Jesuses, such as the Jesus who never excluded anyone or who never judged and the Jesus who is merely a man, whether a prophet, a good man, a spiritual guru, or all of the above. Many people believe that Jesus is not the one-and-only Son of God and the one-and-only way to God. Therefore, we need to uphold “Christ Alone” today, too.

This morning, I want to focus on three things. First, I want us to see who Jesus is. Second, I want us to see what he did for us. And, third, I want us to see how we should find our identity in him. He alone is the one in whom all things hold together. He alone is truly God and truly man. He alone is the one who died for our sins. And he alone is our true identity.

I won’t be able to say everything about Jesus this morning, of course. If you want to know more about Jesus, go to https://wbcommunity.org/jesus. But to see the uniqueness of Jesus, I want us to turn to the book of Colossians.

First, we’ll look at a very important passage in the first chapter. We’ll read verses 15–20. And as we’re turning there, I want to read the two verses before that passage. The apostle Paul writes this to Christians:

13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

I’ll come back to the idea of how God rescues his people through his Son. But it’s important to understand that we are rescued by the Son. Now, Paul tells us more about who the Son is in verses 15–20:

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

Let’s take this passage bit by bit. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. He represents God, whom we can’t see, perfectly. The book of Hebrews says, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). This is important for understanding Jesus’ divinity and his humanity. If we fail to see that Jesus is both God and man, we’ll get Jesus wrong. I’ll explain that in just a moment. But it’s important to see here that Jesus is the perfect image of God. Not only that, but in him “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” That can only be true of God. No mere human being could contain the fullness of God.

We’re also told that Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation.” In the fourth century, Arians took this verse to mean that Jesus was the first created being. Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses would read this passage in a similar way. But here “firstborn” refers to rights and status. We know this from another passage in the Bible. In Psalm 89, which is a Psalm largely about David, God says this:

And I will make him the firstborn,
the highest of the kings of the earth (Ps. 89:27).

David was not the first king of Israel. That was Saul. And David was not the firstborn of his family. He was the youngest of eight brothers. So, “firstborn” does not literally mean “born first” here. It refers to his unique position. In the Bible, there are times when Israel or the king was said to be God’s “son.” Jesus is truly God’s Son, the “highest king.”

We know from other passages in the Bible that Jesus is God. Sometimes, Jesus is quite simply called God (John 1:1, 18; 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Tit. 2:13; 2 Pet. 1:1). Sometimes, passages that in the Old Testament clearly refer to God are quoted (or alluded to) in the New Testament and applied to Jesus.[6] Other times, Jesus is described as doing the same work as God. Only God can forgive sins, judge people, and create the world. And yet we’re told that Jesus does these things. So, in this passage in Colossians, we’re told that Jesus created all things, and not just all physical things in the universe, but all created realities, whether angels or people or anything else. If that is true, he cannot be a created being (or else he would have created himself).

And not only that, all things are created by Jesus and for him. Romans 11:36 says, “For from him and through him and to him are all things.” There, the apostle Paul says everything exists for, through, and to God. Here, in Colossians, we’re told that everything exists by Jesus and for him, and that he sustains everything, holding it all together. This cannot be possible unless Jesus is God.

Jesus is the center of reality. He holds everything together. Hebrews says he does that by his word (Heb. 1:3). He holds the universe together. Without Jesus, there would be no creation. Everything would cease to exist. You would cease to exist without Jesus, whether you trust him or not. And he is the one who connects God to human beings. He is the point where heaven and earth meet. That is why he alone is the one who connects us to God and why he alone is the head of the church.

Earlier, I said that it’s important to know that Jesus is God. If he were not God, he would not have the power to save us, nor would we have lived the perfectly righteous life. I also said that he is human. When he was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, though he has always existed, he added a second nature. He was and is still God, but he also became a human being. As a human being, he fulfills God’s plans for humanity and he can be our representative and our substitutionary, atoning sacrifice for our sins.

When Jesus is called the “image of God,” it reminds us that humans were created in God’s image. The first human beings were created to reflect God’s character, to represent him on earth, to rule over the world, and to multiply so that the world would become full of God’s image bearers, who would also reflect his glory and rule the world. But humans can only carry this mandate out if they come under God’s rule by obeying God’s word. Yet, from the beginning, humans haven’t trusted God. They haven’t paid attention to his word. They have disobeyed him and lived contrary to his design for our lives.

Because we ignore God and rebel against him, we deserve condemnation. Yet God has always had a plan to save people. At the right time, he sent his Son into the world. Jesus truly reflected, represented, and obeyed God. He always loved God perfectly. Therefore, he fulfills God’s expectations for us. He is truly the perfect man. And yet he died for our sins, paying the penalty for our crimes against God.

We’ll talk about that more in a moment. But it’s important to know that Jesus died, because this passage says that he is “the firstborn of the dead.” In this case, Jesus literally was the first resurrected person in history. He was the person to die and come back to life in a body that can never die again.[7] He is the “firstfruits” (1 Cor. 15:20, 23) of the resurrection. That means he is the first resurrected person, but others will follow later. When Jesus rose from the grave, his immortal body was like a down payment, guaranteeing that at the end of time, when Jesus returns, all of God’s people will be resurrected and live in a perfect, resurrected world. At that time, all things will be reconciled to Jesus. This doesn’t mean that every person will be reconciled to God in terms of salvation. We know from many other passages in the Bible that there will be people who are condemned, who continue to reject God and want no part with him. But it means that everything in the universe will be reordered to reflect God’s reign. Those who trust in Jesus will live with him in a perfected universe, a universe of peace and harmony. Those who reject Jesus will be removed from this universe, cast out into what we call hell.[8]

So, we have already seen in one passage that Jesus is both God and man, that he created the universe and sustains it, and that he is the head of the church who was raised from the dead.

In Colossians 2, we’re told more about Jesus’ work as our Savior. Let’s read verses 6–15:

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Notice that in verse 9, we’re told that “the whole fullness of deity” dwells in Jesus. This cannot be said of a mere human being. And Christians have access to the fullness of God because they are “in Christ,” which means they are united to him and their lives are subsumed or submerged in him.

But what I want to focus on is what Paul says about what Jesus does for us. He says that Jesus gives us a spiritual circumcision. This may seem very strange to you if you’re not familiar with the Bible. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were told to circumcise male children. Literally, this involved cutting out part of a man’s flesh. But even in the Old Testament, this was a sign. It pointed forward to the Messiah, who would come out of Israel. And it symbolized the need to have one’s old nature cut out, to have a spiritual change. We might use the metaphor of a heart transplant.[9]

In this passage, we’re told that Christians have received a circumcision “made without hands.” That’s another way of saying that God has done it. And we’re told this is done “by putting off the body of the flesh.” In the New Testament, “flesh” doesn’t literally mean one’s body. The physical stuff of the world is not inferior to spiritual things. But “flesh” often means sinful desires. We’re supposed to put those away. When God brings us to faith in Jesus, we receive new desires and a new nature.

This change occurs because, when we’re united to Jesus by trusting in him, our old selves are buried with him and our new lives are resurrected in him. That’s what that spiritual circumcision really is, and that is what is pictured in baptism. It’s a change of condition, a change of status, and a change of our spiritual lives. When we have a right relationship with Jesus, it is as though we have already died, and we have already been raised to new life, because he has died for our sins and been resurrected for our justification. If we believe that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and has done what the Bible says he has done, then we receive whatever is his. We are credited with his perfect, righteous life. Though we will die, we will receive immortal, resurrected bodies.

How is this possible? Because God has forgiven us. And how can God forgive people who have sinned against him? God cancelled “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” God is a perfect judge. He makes sure that every crime is punished. For those who trust in Jesus, all their sins were nailed to the cross. Jesus has already died for them. All our spiritual debt has been set aside, paid for by Jesus’ once-and-for-all sacrifice (Heb. 7:27; 9:26; 10:10, 12, 14). We do not have to pay for our own sins, because they have been paid for—if we trust Jesus.

I want us to look at one more passage from Colossians to see that not only is Jesus the God-man who was crucified for our sins, but he is also our identity, our very life. Let’s look at Colossians 3:1–4:

1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

If we have been raised with Christ, or made spiritually alive in him because we have faith in him, we’re supposed to seek “the things that are above.” That means we’re supposed to seek after eternal matters, the things of God. That doesn’t mean the things of this world aren’t important. But it does mean they need to be put in their proper place. They are not the center of the universe. Jesus is.

Paul tells Christians that they “have died” and their “life is hidden with Christ in God.” Then, he says, “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Jesus is our true life. He is supposed to be our true identity. Our true selves haven’t even appeared yet. We won’t know who we’re truly supposed to be until we know Jesus and until we see him face to face (1 John 3:2). This means that our lives are supposed to be built around Jesus. He isn’t a little something that we add onto our lives. Following Jesus isn’t a hobby. Trusting in Jesus is a life-consuming reality. If we know Jesus truly, our lives are swallowed up in his life. We find our true selves by finding him.

What do these passages in Colossians mean for us? How do these truths affect our lives?

First, Jesus alone is the God-man, the one who holds the universe together, the one who connects us to God. There is simply no one like him. Christianity says that there is one God who exists in three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Yet Jesus is unique, because he is both God and man and we need him to be both. Only a human being could die in place of other human beings, and Jesus died for our sins. Only a divine human being can live a perfect, holy human life, satisfying God’s standards for humanity. Only an infinite God could pay for the sins of a multitude of people. There is simply no other way to satisfy God’s perfect, holy, righteous demands for justice than Jesus’ righteous life and atoning death. He is the only bridge between God and man. As Jesus himself said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

I realize that many people find this offensive. They think that any claim that one religion is true is too exclusive. They think it’s narrow-minded and bigoted to say that Jesus is the only way to God, the only way to eternal life.

I understand that. But, in the end, all truth claims tend to be narrow, exclusive, and specific. If I say that two plus two is four is true, I’m excluding other claims, such as “two plus two is five,” or “two plus two is three.” All mathematical truths are very narrow that way. Scientific truths and historical truths are narrow and specific. Why shouldn’t that be the case when it comes to God?

Furthermore, different religions have different views of Jesus, and they can’t all be true. Islam says that Jesus is not God’s Son, that he is not divine, that he didn’t die on the cross and therefore that he didn’t rise from the grave. This and the biblical view of Jesus both can’t be true. Jesus can’t be the biblical Jesus, the Muslim Jesus, the Mormon Jesus, and the New Age Jesus, because these different “Jesuses” have contradictory descriptions. Different religions say contradictory things about God and salvation. They could all be false, but they can’t all be true.

And when it comes to exclusivity, we sometimes need to go through one channel. This may seem like an odd illustration, but I think it works. I have an iPhone and an iPad. When I use these devices, I use “apps” that I downloaded from Apple’s “App Store.” To get a new app on these devices, I must go to that store. There’s no other way. And if you develop an app and want it to be used by Apple’s customers, you have to go through Apple. Apple decides whether your app will be available on the App Store. They want to make sure the apps are not inappropriate or have viruses. So, both customers and app developers need to go through one channel. To get our church’s sermons on iTunes so they can be listened to on Apple’s podcasting app, I had to go through Apple. There was no other way.

Sometimes, there is only one path. There is only one God who created the universe and sustains it even now. There is only one God who became a human being without ceasing to be God. There is one God-man who died for our sins. There is simply no one else.

Here’s a second thing I want us to consider: Jesus’ work is perfect. He is the true image of God. He lived a perfect human life imaging God: reflecting him, representing him, obeying him, loving him. And he died a once-for-all death to pay for our sins. There is nothing we can do to add to Jesus’ work. All our efforts are small and tainted with imperfections and bad motives, such as selfishness. So, it’s not “Jesus plus works,” or “Jesus plus anything else.” It is “Christ Alone.”

When we took questions from people a couple of months ago at West Bridgewater’s Park Day, someone asked, “Will Mary save me?” The answer is no. Neither will Allah, Buddha, Vishnu, Zeus, any president, any athlete, any entertainer, any scientist, your spouse, or even you. Only Jesus saves.

Only Jesus goes between God and us. That means we can go directly to him and put our faith in him. You don’t need to talk to me before putting faith in Jesus and being forgiven for your sins. You don’t have to confess your sins to me or even be baptized. Salvation can be yours today if you trust Jesus. That doesn’t mean the church isn’t important. No, I think the church is very important. I play an important role as a pastor and teacher. Other people play important roles in the church. The church helps us in many ways, such as encouraging us, discipling us, correcting us, teaching us, loving us, and so on. But you don’t need to go through a whole list of intermediaries to get to God. Because of Jesus, we can directly approach God in prayer (Heb. 4:14–16). He alone is our High Priest.

Here’s the third thing I want us to see: To have a right relationship with Jesus, we need to have faith in him. If Jesus is the only God-man who lives the perfect life for us and dies for us, and if he is the only High Priest and the only mediator between God and man, then it makes sense that he is the only proper object of our faith. Of course, we believe in God the Father and God the Spirit, too. But we can have no part with them if we don’t believe in Jesus. To believe in Jesus is to believe in the triune God. Colossians 2:12 says that we are raised to new life “through faith in the powerful working of God.” You can’t trust in the powerful working of God without trusting that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and that he did what the Bible says he is. Faith is personal. It is trust in a person’s character and abilities. Salvation from sin and condemnation cannot be achieved apart from trusting Jesus and being united to him by means of the Holy Spirit. I think it’s impossible to be saved apart from knowing who Jesus is and what he has done for us. As I said last week, the Bible uses the metaphor of marriage to depict our relationship to Jesus. We are his bride and he is our groom. It’s impossible to be married to someone you don’t know.[10]

Here’s the fourth and final thing I want us to see: Jesus alone is our true identity. He is our life. He is what matters. Our lives often feel disappointing. We may feel like giant failures, because we haven’t measured up to our own expectations, let alone God’s standards. In those times, we must understand that Jesus is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). We may feel like we’ve been rejected by people who should love us. We may not feel loved at all. Yet we know that Jesus loves us because he died for us. We may feel that our lives are falling apart and that we have no security in this world, no guarantee that things will work out. Yet Jesus holds all things together. He has the power to hold your life together. And he is the first installemnt of the resurrected, perfected new creation. If you trust in him, though the worst in this life happens to you, you already have eternal life and you will have resurrected life with him.

In the church I used to serve, there was a man who often talked about his worry that he would never get married. You don’t hear many men talk like that, so it was memorable. He did get married around age 30, but before that time he was worried that he might remain single for the rest of his life. I guess he had those feelings because his parents married when they were young, and they modeled a healthy, loving relationship. So, marriage for him was what a great career might be for other people, a very desirable achievement. When he was wondering if he would ever get married, he asked himself this question: “If I never get married, is Jesus enough?” In other words, would Jesus be enough to satisfy him, to give his life meaning and happiness?

That’s a question we should all ask ourselves. Is Jesus enough if I never get rich? Is Jesus enough if I’m never famous or powerful? Is Jesus enough if I never do what all my friends are doing? Is Jesus enough if I feel like my friends and family don’t love me the way that they should? And the answer must be, “Yes.” Jesus is enough because he is God, because he holds the universe together, because he is our life. Jesus is enough because he is perfect and because he loves us and sacrificed himself for us. Your spouse will never love you the way Jesus does and he or she can’t die for your sins. Your career or money will never be able to give you the riches that Jesus can give you in eternity, because he made everything. Your hobbies and possessions can never quench your spiritual thirst or satisfy your spiritual hunger. You were made for more than the creation. You were made for the Creator. Christ alone can save us. Christ alone can truly satisfy us. Let us trust him and find our true lives in him.

Notes

  1. Martin Luther, “Letter to Johann von Staupitz (March 31, 1518),” in D. Martin Luthers Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe: Briefwechsel, 18 vols. (Weimar: Hermann Böhlhaus Nachfolger, 1930–83), 1:160, quoted in Stephen Wellum, Christ Alone—The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 163,
  2. Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, §411, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 104.
  3. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  4. Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, §969, pg. 252. This quote comes from Lumen Gentium, one of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). It was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964.
  5. The same Greek word is translated as “advocate,” “helper,” or “counselor” in various translations. The Greek word is παράκλητος.
  6. For example, see the “I am” statements of Jesus such as John 8:24, 58, which refer to passages in the Old Testament (Isa. 41:4; 43:10, 13, 25; 46:4; 48:12). See John 12:36–43, in which John quotes Isaiah 6:10 and says that Isaiah saw “him” who, in the context of the passage in John, is clearly Jesus. In Isaiah 6, the prophet has a vision of God. See also Philippians 2:9–11, which is about Jesus and alludes to Isaiah 45:23, which is clearly about God.
  7. Others died and came back to life only to die again later. Technically, that is revivification, not resurrection.
  8. Some people take this verse out of context and believe it teaches universalism, the idea that everyone will be saved from condemnation. But Paul says that those who continue in the faith are reconciled to God through Christ (Col. 1:21–23). Also, God “disarmed rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, triumphing over them in him” when Jesus died on the cross (Col. 2:15). We know from the rest of the Bible that such evil spiritual rulers such as Satan will not be reconciled in a saving way to Jesus.
  9. See Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 9:25–26.
  10. For more on faith in Christ, see the previous week’s sermon, “Faith Alone,” at https://wbcommunity.org/faithalone.