Thursday, December 22, 2011

Teaching Notes on the Importance of the Virgin Birth

Following are teaching notes from 2006 on the importance of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. I hope they will be helpful to the blog's readers as they prepare to celebrate Christmas this year.

Scripture Reading: We will be reading lot of Scripture this morning, but we will begin with these two foundational texts: Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-35. As we read, notice the emphasis both texts place on the fact that Mary was a virgin and that both Jesus' conception and birth were therefore the miraculous work of God alone.
NKJ Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. 19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. 20 But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.” 22 So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: 23 'Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,' [Isa. 7:14] which is translated, 'God with us.' 24 Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, 25 and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.

NKJ Luke 1:26-35 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by 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. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” 29 But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. 30 Then 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 bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give 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.” 34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”35 And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.”
Introduction: As we have already seen in our Scripture reading thus far, both the accounts of Matthew and Luke are very clear about the fact that Jesus was born of a virgin. Throughout the centuries the Church has always been sure to emphasize this fact as well, deeming it so important that it was included in its most cherished creeds. Consider, for example, the Apostles' Creed (3rd-4th centuries):
I believe in God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; the third day He rose from the dead; He ascended into heaven; and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic Church; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
Notice that this creed includes only those things which were deemed most essential to the Christian faith. It is a very selective creed, yet it includes an emphasis upon the historicity and reality of the virgin birth. It clearly sees this doctrine as one of crucial importance, then, doesn't it?

This doctrine has been deemed just as crucial by all Bible-believing Christians since that time, being included in virtually every orthodox creed or doctrinal summary, including our own. For example, in chapter 8, paragraph 2 of our own Confession of Faith we read:
The Son of God, the second person in the Holy Trinity, being very and eternal God, the brightness of the Father's glory, of one substance and equal with Him, who made the world, who upholds and governs all things He hath made, did when the fullness of time was come take unto Him man's nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin, being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary.... (an amended version of the Baptist Confession of 1689)
We even include this doctrine in our Summary of the Doctrines of Grace Expressed in the Baptist Confession of 1689 (Paragraph 7):
We believe that God sent His Son into the world, conceived of the virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, unchangeably sinless, both God and man, born under the Law, to live a perfect life of righteousness, on behalf of His people.
But why is this doctrine deemed so crucial to us? And, more importantly, why is the fact of the virgin birth stressed so clearly in Scripture? Why was it important to God that Jesus be born of a virgin and that we know this with such certainty?

Well, neither Matthew's nor Luke's account comes right out and plainly says why this is so. There is no statement by either of them that Jesus was born of a virgin for any specific reason other than Matthew's assertion that it was in fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy.

However, I think that the Bible does nevertheless clearly indicate some answers to these questions, and these answers will be the focus of our study. I would like to briefly suggest to you four Scriptural reasons why it is important that Jesus was born of a virgin.

I. The virgin birth explains how Jesus is both fully God and fully Man.

Unlike Matthew and Luke, the Apostle John does not begin His Gospel with an account of the virgin birth and the events leading up to and surrounding it, but instead begins with a description of the incarnation of Christ.
NKJ John 1:1-3, 14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.... [And then later in the passage John says] 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
I would suggest to you that this is really not a different starting place at all, for the virgin birth is the way in which the incarnation of Christ came about. It is the way in which Jesus “became flesh and dwelt among us.”

So, Matthew and Luke and John really begin at the same place … the incarnation of Christ. Remember the account of Luke that we read earlier:
NKJ Luke 1:34-35 Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” 35 And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.”
The son to be born of the virgin Mary was going to be more than just a man, He was going to be the divine Son of God as well. Throughout the Gospels this title was used by Jesus and rightly understood by the Jews to be a claim to deity. None of them questioned His humanity, and the virgin birth ensures that no one could rightly question His divinity either!

John Piper stressed the importance of this issue in a sermon entitled Christ Conceived by the Holy Spirit:
Gabriel's answer to Mary's question, How? is very simply and delicately: the Holy Spirit. Beyond this, revelation does not go. How can a virgin have a child? How can the human child be the divine Son of God? Answer: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you . . . therefore the child to be born will be called the Son of God.” The word “therefore” in Luke 1:35 is tremendously important. It shows that the conception of Jesus in a virgin is owing to the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit. And it shows that the divine sonship of Jesus depends on his virgin birth.
Many people will try to say that the conception of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit in the virgin Mary is not essential in the doctrine of the incarnation, since Jesus would have been the Son of God even if the virgin birth weren't true. The words of Gabriel do not agree. In answer to the question, How can a virgin conceive? he says, “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.” Jesus can be called Son of God (v. 35), Son of the Most High (v. 32), precisely because he was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” It is an unfathomable mystery that all the fullness of deity should dwell bodily in Jesus (Colossians 2:9). It is fitting (indeed necessary, I think) that the entrance gate to this mystery of incarnation should be the virgin birth.
Application: So, Christmas is a celebration of the power of God and the wonder and mystery of the incarnation. It is a time in which we are to be humbled by our own inability to grasp His greatness.

The virgin birth reminds us of what God once said through the Prophet Isaiah, “'For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,' says the LORD. 'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts'” (55:8-9, NKJ). We must throw up our our hands with David and cry out, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6, NKJ). What other response could be more appropriate as we prepare to celebrate Christmas?

II. The virgin birth explains how Jesus was without sin.

This is hinted at in the prophetic announcement of Jesus' birth by the angel Gabriel. Recall again Luke's account of his pronouncement to Mary:
NKJ Luke 1:35 And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.”
The ESV translates this verse a bit differently:
ESV Luke 1:35 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.”
Whichever way it is translated, this statement by Gabriel informs us that, because he was born of a virgin, Jesus was holy. That this holiness was more than just being set apart as one who was special to God, but that it included a moral holiness or perfection, is clear from the fact that He was also going to be the very Son of God, who could be nothing but morally perfect. It is also clear from what the rest of the Scriptures tell us about Christ. For example:
NKJ 2 Corinthians 5:21 For He made Him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
Paul connects Jesus' sacrifice for our sins to His own sinlessness. In fact, the Scriptures teach that Jesus' sinlessness is why He can be the perfect sacrifice for our sins.
NKJ 1 Peter 1:18-19 ... knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.

NKJ 1 Peter 2:21-24 For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: 22 'Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth' [Isa. 53:9]; 23 who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness -- by whose stripes you were healed.

NKJ Hebrews 10:4-12 For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.5 Therefore, when He came into the world, He [Jesus] said: 'Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You have prepared for Me. 6 In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You had no pleasure. 7 Then I said, “Behold, I have come -- in the volume of the book it is written of Me -- to do Your will, O God.”' 8 Previously saying, 'Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them' (which are offered according to the law), 9 then He said, 'Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.' He takes away the first that He may establish the second. 10 By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 11 And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God....
Functioning as our great High Priest, Jesus sat down after He made His sacrifice because there was no need for any further sacrifice! His was the perfect sacrifice once for all!

Application: Christmas is a time to celebrate the fact that Jesus was born without sin, in order to live without sin, and then to die without sin for His people. This is how the angel's prophecy that “He will save His people from their sins” was fulfilled.

III. The virgin birth explains how Jesus became our sympathetic High Priest.

That Jesus remained without sin throughout His life does not mean, of course, that He was never tempted to sin, but rather that he was able to overcome every temptation. And this is one of the reasons that He had to become man and therefore that the virgin birth was necessary. He is not just our great High Priest in that He gave the final, perfect sacrifice for sins – Himself. He is also our High Priest because He can sympathize with our weakness and help us to overcome sin as He did.
NKJ Hebrews 2:14-18 Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. 16 For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham. 17 Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.
NKJ Hebrews 4:14-16 Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Application: Christmas is a time to rejoice that God Himself has condescended to become one of us, and that He understands and sympathizes with our weakness. It is a time to celebrate the victory over sin and temptation that He provides for us. It is a time to celebrate a God who has drawn close to us so that we may boldly draw near to Him!

IV. The virgin birth is a miraculous sign from God that He has acted to save His people from their sins.

This is what Matthew tells us when he cites the prophecy concerning Jesus' birth:
NKJ Matthew 1:21-23 “And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.” 22 So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”
Here Matthew is citing part of Isaiah 7:14, but the whole verse reads, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.”

Clearly Matthew saw Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of this promised sign that a virgin would conceive. Matthew also clearly sees the virgin birth as connected to the mystery of the incarnation, for he points out that the meaning of Immanuel is “God with us.”

The miracle of the virgin birth is something that only God Himself could perform, and it is thus a reminder that salvation is the work of God on our behalf. It is thus by His grace that we are saved. It is not something we can do for ourselves.

As Wayne Grudem aptly observes in his Systematic Theology:
[The virgin birth] shows that salvation ultimately must come from the Lord. Just as God had promised that the “seed” of the woman (Gen. 3:15) would ultimately destroy the serpent, so God brought it about by his own power, not through mere human effort. The virgin birth of Christ is an unmistakable reminder that salvation can never come through human effort, but must be the work of God himself. Our salvation only comes about through the supernatural work of God, and that was evident at the very beginning of Jesus’ life when “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). (p. 529)
Application: Christmas, then, is a celebration of the grace of God in providing Jesus as our Savior and accomplishing through Him all that is necessary to save us.

Conclusion: I hope we all have seen just how important the virgin birth is to our faith. Scripture is quite clear about how essential this historical fact is to our salvation. But, in order to further stress the importance of the doctrine of the virgin birth and to show you that I am far from alone is seeing how crucial the doctrine is in Scripture, I would like to conclude with quotes from two leading modern theologians:

First, Wayne Grudem is again helpful when he writes in his Systematic Theology:
It has been common, at least in previous generations, for those who do not accept the complete truthfulness of Scripture to deny the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ. But if our beliefs are to be governed by the statements of Scripture, then we will certainly not deny this teaching. Whether or not we could discern any aspects of doctrinal importance for this teaching, we should believe it first of all simply because Scripture affirms it. Certainly such a miracle is not too hard for the God who created the universe and everything in it—anyone who affirms that a virgin birth is “impossible” is just confessing his or her own unbelief in the God of the Bible. Yet in addition to the fact that Scripture teaches the virgin birth, we can see that it is doctrinally important, and if we are to understand the biblical teaching on the person of Christ correctly, it is important that we begin with an affirmation of this doctrine. (p. 532)
Second, Albert Mohler also drives home the importance of the doctrine of the virgin birth in a blog article entitled Must We Believe the Virgin Birth?:
Must one believe in the Virgin Birth to be a Christian? This is not a hard question to answer. It is conceivable that someone might come to Christ and trust Christ as Savior without yet learning that the Bible teaches that Jesus was born of a virgin. A new believer is not yet aware of the full structure of Christian truth. The real question is this: Can a Christian, once aware of the Bible's teaching, reject the Virgin Birth? The answer must be no.
 May God grant us the grace to stand firm on this crucial doctrine when so many have been abandoning it.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Toward a Biblical Perspective on Depression: Romans 5:1-5

So far this series has considered seven case studies from Scripture, from which we have endeavored to draw lessons about some of the possible causes and cures for depression. Then we examined a couple of passages which speak directly to the issue of depression in order to see how the Bible says that we should face such a trial. Now let's turn our attention to some of the Bible's teaching that deals more generally with trials and tribulations, of which depression in all its forms would be a subset. For example, let's begin by examining some of Paul's teaching on trials in the Book of Romans:
NKJ Romans 5:1-5 “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; 4 and perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”
I was reminded by this passage that through Christ I can “rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (vs. 2), and I think by this Paul means that I can rejoice in the knowledge that God will manifest His glory through me and in my life. In fact, later in this same epistle Paul describes the ultimate triumph of God's work in us as our being glorified. For example:
NKJ  Romans 8:15-18 “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, 'Abba, Father.' 16 The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs-- heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”

NKJ Romans 8:28-30 “28 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. 29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. 30 Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.”
All things, including tribulations and suffering, are a part of God's plan to glorify us, that is, to reveal His glory in us. Although this ultimately happens in the resurrection (as the context in Romans 8 makes clear), it is happening to some degree even now, which is what I believe Paul is saying in Romans 5. I think he is trying to tell us that, as we learn to go through trials in faith, we see God being glorified in us more and more, and this gives us a foretaste of the coming glory that will be revealed in us. When Paul tells us that “we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” in verse 3-4, the hope he is talking about is the “hope of the glory of God” he has mentioned in verse 2. So, the more we see God being glorified in and through us as we faithfully endure trials, the more we increase in the certainty that His promise of future glorification is, indeed, true.

There is a cycle revealed in Romans 5:1-5, one through which God has taken me many times before and with which I have become quite well acquainted. So perhaps an illustration of how the cycle has worked in my own life would help to explain what I mean more clearly. It comes from a time when I was just a kid, about twelve years old. I went with my family to a state park in southern Indiana that had a cave that went through a hillside and came out the other side. I think it was actually an abandoned attempt at building a railroad tunnel at one time. At any rate, the tunnel was just long enough that when you were in the middle of it you were in complete darkness and could see no light coming from either end. After having gone through the tunnel a couple of times with a flashlight, I decided – I vaguely remember a dare – to try to go through the tunnel with no light at all. Well, about half way through, as I was in the darkest part of the tunnel, feeling my way along, I remember being gripped by fear and worrying that maybe I would get lost somehow and no one would ever find me. And I thought about turning back. But what kept me going was that fact that I had been through the tunnel before, and I knew that if I just pressed on there would be a light ahead.

This is the same way with trials in my life. I have been through the tunnel before many times, and I know that, despite how dark things may be at any given time, there is always a light at the end! It is the “hope of the glory of God,” and it keeps me going, just as Paul said it would. Indeed, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel of every trial for the Christian, and it is the joy set before us as we see the glory of God more fully manifested in our own lives. May we ever seek this joy in Him! And may we accept the fact that it comes with suffering, even such suffering as depression. You see, even depression – however terrible it may be to endure – can be a lens through which we may see more clearly the glory of God being manifested in our lives, and this can bring us great reason for joy even in the midst of heartache.