Jesus—His Life and Message: Jesus’ Birth (Part 5)
December 30, 2014
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: Jesus’ Birth (Part 5)
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
The birth narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us the story of Jesus’ birth. These accounts also portray deep truths about what God was doing in His plan of salvation. To get the bigger picture concerning the event of God’s Son coming into the world, it helps to look briefly at the Gospel of John which, instead of covering the story of Jesus’ birth, tells us of His eternal existence with God before being born into this world.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men ...And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.1
John’s opening words hark back to the first words of the book of Genesis—In the beginning.2 He tells us that before anything was made, the Word [Logos]3 was with God; that the Word was God; that the Word made all things; and that the Word, who was God, became flesh and dwelt on earth. He later tells us that this Word was Jesus. He also tells us that Jesus, the one and only Son, is Himself God and is the one who made the Father known to us.
No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.4
In telling us this, John states that God the Word, who is not God the Father, became flesh and dwelt with us. The Greek word translated as dwelt refers to abiding or living in a tabernacle or tent. The image given is that God, the Word, dwelt on earth in a similar manner as when God’s presence dwelt with the Hebrew people in the desert after their deliverance from Egypt. At that time, God’s presence dwelt in the tabernacle or tent. His Word had now come to dwell—or encamp—with humanity. He is also telling us that the Word, who became human flesh, preexisted with the Father before the world was created. From this revelation comes the doctrine of the incarnation, which in brief means that God the Son (who is the Word/Logos) was born into this world to redeem humanity. (For more on the doctrine of the incarnation, see The Heart of It All: The God-Man, Parts 1–2.)
We see through Matthew and Luke’s gospels how the incarnation happened—that God the Son was conceived in Mary’s womb through the creative act of the Holy Spirit and was born into this world through Mary, who was a virgin at the time of His conception and remained a virgin until His birth. This is known as the doctrine of the virginal conception. Matthew and Luke didn’t attempt to connect the virginal conception to the doctrine of the incarnation of a preexistent Son of God. That doctrine is rooted in John’s gospel, as seen above, and is expressed beyond the birth narratives in the other Gospels as well as in the Epistles.5
The virginal conception not only indicates that Jesus was God’s Son through the Holy Spirit, but that He was a unique person who was the product of both the divine and human in a manner unlike any others before or since. Theological reflection centuries later saw in the virginal conception the explanation of how Jesus was born with a human nature but did not sin.6 The doctrine of the virginal conception also stresses that Jesus was fully human, participating in the whole human life cycle from womb to tomb.7
The virginal conception also points to His deity: they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us);8 therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.9 The reference to the child being called holy—the Son of God points to both His divinity and His unique holiness. As God is holy, so the Son will be holy; and as will be seen, He lived a life without sin.
The virginal conception is considered a fundamental doctrine of Christianity and is included in the Nicene Creed, which is professed by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox churches (Greek, Russian, etc.), Anglicans, and Protestants. The creed states:
For us men and for our salvation he [Jesus] came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.10
While all major Christian faiths espouse the virginal conception, there is a divergence in beliefs in regard to Mary’s virginity after the birth of Jesus, as well as other doctrines concerning Mary. Because different branches of Christianity hold differing beliefs regarding Mary, I felt it would be helpful to explain some of the differences.
Most Protestants today consider that after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph had normal conjugal relations and more children. Roman Catholics, Orthodox churches, and some Anglicans believe that Mary remained a virgin throughout the rest of her life. The Roman Catholic Church has also traditionally taught that along with the virginal conception, there was a virginal birth—a miraculous painless birth in which the hymen was not ruptured.
These Roman Catholic doctrines are expressed like this:
Mary was a virgin before, during and after the birth of Jesus Christ; Mary bore her Son without any violation of her virginal integrity; and, also after the birth of Jesus Mary remained a Virgin.11
Catholic priest and author Raymond Brown, when commenting on these doctrines, points out that the doctrine of Mary’s virginal integrity isn’t necessarily as firmly held as it was in the past. He writes:
Roman Catholics have traditionally considered all three stages of the virginity of Mary to be revealed doctrine, but a more nuanced position is now being taken by Catholic theologians on the “in partu” [giving birth without any violation of her virginal integrity].12
Mary as perpetual virgin is held as a major Roman Catholic and Orthodox doctrine. The Anglican Church, or at least the Anglo-Catholic and High Church movements within Anglicanism, seem to hold this as an important belief, but not a dogma. Some of the main Protestant reformers, including Martin Luther and John Calvin, considered Mary to be “ever virgin,” though as the Lutherans and Calvinists further developed their doctrines, they no longer strictly adhered to this belief. Lutherans consider Mary’s perpetual virginity a pious opinion rather than a binding doctrine. Churches with origins in Calvin’s doctrine don’t believe Mary to be “ever virgin.”
Catholics teach that Mary took a vow of virginity and thus never consummated her marriage with Joseph or had more children. Within Catholic teaching is the explanation that the brothers and sisters of Jesus, referred to in all four Gospels,13 were not actually siblings but cousins. However, when Jesus’ brothers and sisters are referred to in the Gospels, the Greek word for cousins is never used, while the word for brother or sister is always used.14 Orthodox teaching is that Joseph was an older widower, who already had children. The general Protestant understanding is that Mary and Joseph did have other children after Jesus’ birth.
Though there is disagreement among the different branches of Christianity regarding the perpetual virginity of Mary, by and large, all branches agree that Mary is the “Mother of God.” The foundation for this lies in the fact that Jesus was God in the flesh and thus was truly God as well as truly man. He had a supernatural conception but a perfectly normal, natural birth. Because Jesus was God in the flesh, Mary is called in the early Christian creeds “the Mother of God” or the “God-bearer.” This isn’t to say that God came into existence as a result of Mary’s conceiving or that Mary procreated God. She is called the God-bearer because the person she bore in her womb and gave birth to was divine; thus Jesus’ birth in this sense was the birth of God.15
Beyond some of the differing ideas about Mary in relation to Jesus’ birth, there are other major doctrines regarding Mary which the Roman Catholic Church holds which differ from Protestant doctrine. Since there are 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, compared to 800 million Protestants, I felt it might be worthwhile as a point of education and interest to add this information here.
Mary's Immaculate Conception
On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX declared as doctrine, which must be believed by all Roman Catholics, that Mary, unlike any other human being except Jesus, was conceived without stain of original sin. In this view, while Mary was conceived in a normal manner, through the coming together of her father and mother, she received an unmerited act of God’s grace and therefore entered existence in a state of sanctifying grace and thus was preserved from the contagion of original sin.16 Mary is considered to be the only person who has ever been given this special privilege from God.
Mary’s Freedom from Actual Sin
Catholic teaching says that because of a special privilege of grace from God, Mary was also free from any personal sin during her whole life. This belief is deduced from Luke 1:28, which is rendered in the Catholic Douay-Rheims translation as “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” and the Catholic understanding of this is that since personal moral defects are irreconcilable with fullness of grace, Mary must have been free from sin.17
The Bodily Assumption of Mary into Heaven
Catholics teach that Mary died a natural death and that once she died, she was assumed (taken up) body and soul into heaven. This doctrine, while taught within the church from AD 500 onward, became official in 1950 when Pope Pius XII declared it a dogma revealed by God that Mary, the immaculate perpetually Virgin Mother of God, after the completion of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into the glory of Heaven. The belief is that after being assumed into heaven and being raised above all angels and saints, Mary reigns with Christ, her Divine Son. That Mary’s sublime dignity as the Queen of Heaven and Earth make her supremely powerful in her maternal intercession for her children on earth.18
The Mediatorship of Mary/Mary as Mediatrix
While Catholic doctrine teaches that Christ is the sole mediator between God and man—since He alone, by His death on the cross, fully reconciled mankind with God—it also teaches that others cooperate in uniting humanity to God. In Mary’s case, she is considered the Mediatrix by her cooperation in the Incarnation.19 Since she freely assented to become Jesus’ mother, and without her consent it wouldn’t have happened, she is seen as cooperating in the redemption of humanity. She is also believed to be the Mediatrix by means of her intercession in heaven. The redemptive grace of Christ is considered to be conferred on someone by means of the actual intercessory cooperation of Mary.
The Catholic Catechism explains:
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.
The Catholic Church teaches that special veneration is due to Mary. While only the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as God—should be adored, Mary should be venerated (veneration is lower than adoration), and veneration given to her should be higher than that due to the angels or other saints.20
Protestants, generally speaking—myself included—do not believe that Mary was immaculately conceived, free from sin, bodily assumed into heaven, is a Mediatrix of grace, or should be venerated in the sense of being worshipped or prayed to or through (as an intercessor who prays to God on our behalf). And yet, in order for God the Son to be fully human, it was necessary that His mother be fully human, and Mary was the woman God chose for the task, a task that she freely agreed to undertake. The angel Gabriel called her O favored one,21 and as the human being chosen by God to be the mother of God incarnate, she was certainly a special person.
In reaction to some aspects of Roman Catholic theology concerning Mary, the Protestant tendency is to ignore her and the important part she played in God’s plan of salvation. However, it might be more helpful if we would look at what she can teach us.
Following are some helpful thoughts along these lines, summarized from authors Lewis and Demarest: Mary can be seen as a primary example of the God-given dignity of women. She provides a prime example of a pure, thoughtful, believing, and spiritually vital daughter of Abraham, with true trust and faith in God and His promises. In her we see God’s use of human agents, including women, in the accomplishment of His holy and loving purposes. She’s an example of willingness to accept God’s Word and do His bidding at great personal risk. Having gone through both the first and second steps of betrothal, and thus being married, speaks to the importance of a family and home as the environment in which God intended for Jesus to be raised.
Joseph, too, played an important role. In his marriage to Mary and their raising their Son in a godly home, we see a beautiful example of a father faithfully raising a foster child, an example of faithfulness and obedience to God’s voice and leading. He was just and considerate, willing to do God’s bidding, and in doing so he kept, protected, and nurtured God's Son.22
While most Protestants may not embrace Catholic theology regarding Mary, we certainly can agree that God had great esteem for her and that she played a crucial role in the life of Christ. She was the one who raised and nurtured God incarnate, the one whom Jesus called “Mom,” who bathed Him, nursed Him, cooked for Him, loved Him, and was with Him when He died. There’s much we can be thankful to Mary for, admire in her, and hold up as an example in our lives.
In the story of Jesus’ birth we find the deep spiritual truth about God’s entrance into humanity through the miraculous birth of His Son, the preexistent Word of God, becoming incarnate for the purpose of redeeming humanity. At the same time, we see the examples of a devout young woman who agreed to God’s request to become the mother of the Savior and a young man who was willing to believe and act upon God’s instructions when it wasn’t easy to do so. Two faithful and willing young people, in obedience to God’s call, played an important role in the greatest event in history. We can certainly be grateful for their faith and obedience and thank God for them.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.
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Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
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Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.
Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1976.
Manson, T. W. The Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1957.
Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.
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Wright, N. T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
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1 John 1:1–4, 14.
2 Genesis 1:1.
3 The word John used, translated into English as Word, was Logos in the original Greek. The term Logos was first used in the 6th century BC by a Greek philosopher named Heraclitus to designate the divine reason or plan which coordinates a changing universe. As such, to a Greek speaker at the time, Logos meant reason, so they would have understood the verses as “in the beginning was the reason or mind of God.” They would understand that before creation the Logos existed with God eternally. Therefore the Logos, the Word, God the Son, was in existence before any created thing—including time, space, or energy—existed. Amsterdam, The Heart of It All: The God-Man, Part 1.
4 John 1:18.
5 Philippians 2:6–11; Romans 8:3; 1 Peter 1:20–21.
6 We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).
He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth (1 Peter 2:22).
You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin (1 John 3:5).
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Which one of you convicts me of sin? (John 8:46).
7 Witherington, Birth of Jesus, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 72.
8 Matthew 1:23.
9 Luke 1:35.
10 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1169.
11 Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 203–207.
12 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 518.
13 Matthew 12:46, 13:55–56; Mark 3:31–32; Luke 8:19–21; John 2:12, 7:3–5.
14 Witherington, Birth of Jesus, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 71.
16 Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 199.
17 Ibid., 203.
18 Ibid., 211.
19 Mediatrix is the female form of mediator and is used in Catholic terminology when referring to Mary as a mediator.
20 Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 215.
21 Luke 1:28.
22 Lewis and Demarest, Integrative Theology, 276–78.