Jesus' Conception and Ours
Jesus’ Conception and Ours
The Lord Jesus Christ was conceived and born. So were we, and so shall our children and grandchildren be. Conception and birth forms the normal way through which one enters this world.
Yet conception and birth is not the only way people have come into this world. The Lord God collected dust from the earth, formed it into the shape of a man, blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and Adam became a living being. No conception or birth there. From the living Adam God took a rib, and out of it He made a second human – Eve. No conception or birth there either. So God is not limited to the process of conception and birth to bring humans into this world. Why, then, did He have Jesus conceived and born? Why not fashion Jesus from Mary’s rib? How does Jesus’ conception and birth affect our marriage bedrooms?
To answer the question, we need to go back to the word of God in Genesis 3. Directly after the fall into sin, the Lord God addressed the serpent in the hearing of Adam and Eve. Said God to the devil: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” We understand the promise: a child of the woman –Eve– would triumph over Satan.
Adam and Eve heard the Lord say these things. So, when some time later Eve became pregnant (4:1), the thought will invariably have risen in hers and Adam’s mind: will this be the child that will crush Satan? It turned out that the answer was No; Cain could not save. By the time her second child was born, Adam and Eve realized well that this child too could not crush Satan; they gave to their second child the name ‘Abel’(4:2) – which is the Hebrew word for Vanity. That neither Cain nor Abel could crush the devil became so apparent when the one rose up and killed the other…; Sin held Cain in his clutches, the devil controlled him instead of he crushing the devil….
From where did Cain get his sinfulness? I read in Gen 5:1: “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.” The point of the word ‘likeness’ is not that man looked like God; rather, man was created able to image what God was like, to reflect God’s holiness, His righteousness, His perfections. I mention this because two verses later Scripture records: “When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image” (vs 3). The passage does not want us to think that the baby looked like Adam; the term ‘likeness’ here –again– catches the notion that the son reflected the attributes of the father. As Adam was sinful (as a result of the fall in Gen 3), so his son was sinful too. And it’s not just his first son that was sinful, or his third, but all his children. More: sinfulness characterized every generation after Adam; that’s why Gen 5 repeats that relentless refrain: “and he died”.
It’s a disturbing thought. A man and woman come together, and their loving embrace results in pregnancy – it’s exciting! But the child is sinful. The child in turn becomes a man (or a woman), receives a spouse and then a child – and that child is sinful too. As David testifies about himself: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps 51:5). So it goes from generation to generation. Each mother (and therefore each father), excited though they may be at the prospect of pregnancy, invariably brings another sinner into God’s world. And that is a negative and a terrible thing! For God is holy, and tolerates no sinners in His presence – and not in His world either!
In fact, this is God’s instruction to Israel in Leviticus 12. The chapter relates what the people of Israel were to do when a child was born. (Recall: the parents of Israel were to speak of God’s ordinances with their children when they walked along the road and when they sat down, when they worked and when they played (Dt 6:7). That includes the material of Lev 12!). By God’s ordinance, a mother was unclean for a period of 40 days after the birth of a son, and 80 days after the birth of a daughter. To my knowledge no one has come up with a satisfactory explanation as to why the longer duration of uncleanness with the birth of a daughter than with a son. Fact is: God specifies that Mom is unclean after birth. Then the Lord adds: after the period of uncleanness has run its course, mother “is to bring to the priest at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering” (vs 6). A burnt offering symbolized that one offered one’s being completely to the Lord (see Lev 1). As a mother received a child, she presents that burnt offering – and thereby pledges to the Lord to be a fitting mother for this covenant child of His. But striking in relation to our subject is the fact that mother must also present a sin offering. Why a sin offering? With a sin offering, an Israelite was confessing (unintentional) sin before the Lord (see Lev 4). What sin might there be in relation to childbirth?! Why, precisely the fact that mother (and father with her) has added another sinner to God’s world. Man should image God, reflect His holiness; that’s how God created him. But man does not do that. Each child parents bring forth is a sinner, and therefore parents and child alike are deserving of God’s judgment. In the words of the Belgic Confession: “We believe that by the disobedience of Adam original sin has spread throughout the whole human race. It is a corruption of the entire nature of man and a hereditary evil which infects even infants in their mother’s womb. As a root it produces in man all sorts of sin. It is, therefore, so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn the human race” (Art 15).
That is why the mother’s of Israel –and we today too need to see our little ones not as the innocent little angels we wish they were. Those little ones are corrupt, inclined to all evil – much as we hate the thought. Well does the Form for Baptism ask parents to state of their little child that he is “conceived and born in sin, and therefore subject to all sorts of misery, even to condemnation.” We cannot get around it: corrupt parents bring forth corrupt children (cf Canons of Dort, III/IV, Art 2). Try though one might to bring forth a child that can crush the head of the serpent, a child that can please God, no one can.
That hard reality puts a deep shadow over childbirth, and hence necessarily over the embrace of man and wife. This is part of the vanity and the meaninglessness the Preacher of Ecclesiastes was talking about – for “everything is meaningless” and vanity (1:2), and the ‘everything’ invariably includes marriage, sex, pregnancy and birth. No matter how hard a given generation tries, the children they produce are guaranteed to be sinful, corrupt, inclined to all evil. To its dismay each generation learns again the hard truth Adam and Eve confessed with the birth of Abel: all is Abel, vanity, a striving after wind. We cannot produce a child that will crush the devil. Instead, every child we bring to birth is another sinner for God’s world – and that requires a sin offering. My mother and father had to acknowledge it of me: I was conceived and born in sin. And I must acknowledge it of my children: each of them was a sinner from birth, yea, from conception. Perhaps it is better not to have children…. Did Jesus not say concerning the day of God’s judgment: “Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!”? (Luke 23:29). Children are sinful, without exception; alas, then, that a parent is pregnant!! How deep the shadow over conception and birth….
But wait: what actually happened at Christmas? This: there was a granddaughter of Adam –as depraved as her ancestor– who was pledged to be married to a man named Joseph – himself also thoroughly depraved. But before the two got together in the act of marriage, “she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18). That is: God intervened in the normal process of how a child is conceived, and caused this sinful woman to become pregnant without the participation of a man. The result: the Child is holy, is without sin (Luke 1:35) – images His Father in heaven! That, dear reader, is the marvel of Christmas: God broke the tragic cycle of corrupt parents bringing forth corrupt children, broke it by removing the sinful earthly father and causing the sinful earthly mother to be pregnant with a Child not corrupted by sin.
This, we need to know, is a marvel of God’s grace. Back in the Garden of Eden the Lord had announced that the offspring of the woman would crush the head of the serpent, and in the generations and centuries that followed the Lord had given each new generation ample opportunity to defeat the devil. But no generation could; though so many millions were born in the 4000 or so years following God’s announcement in Paradise, each generation was as depraved as the preceding, and each individual in each generation was also as depraved as his neighbor. And it’s true of every generation today still; that’s why we repeat after God in Lord’s Day 14 that “I was conceived and born” in sin; corrupt parents invariably bring forth corrupt children. So God from heaven on high reached at Christmas into the cycle of sinful parents bringing forth sinful children, and caused something new to occur; a sinful woman conceived a perfect, holy Child!
Mary, and Joseph with her, knew that her little one was holy; the angel had said so (Lu 1:35). Yet Mary, after the prescribed 40-day period of uncleanness was over, did as the Lord had commanded in Lev 12. Luke 2: “when the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary” went to Jerusalem “to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons’” (vss 22ff). Mary offered a burnt offering, and so committed herself to the Lord’s service in her new task as mother, and she offered a sin offering – because she had brought forth another sinner into God’s world…. Yet the Child she had brought forth was not a sinner; this Child was holy! Why then did Mary bring that sin offering?! Did she do it out of custom or superstition? Should she not have refrained from bringing that sacrifice?
No, she should not refrain. Though created to be holy, she simply could not on own resources conceive a holy child; she was no better than her neighbor. It was proper that she confess that fact through her sin offering. Besides, every sin offering presented by a mother of the Old Testament demanded a further sacrifice; never could the lamb or dove of the sin offering take away that (unintentional) sin of bringing another sinner into God’s world (Heb 10:11); each sin offering cried out for the sacrifice of the Sin Offering, that Offspring of the woman who would crush the serpent, that Offspring that would cover in the sight of God the sin in which each person is conceived and born. With the birth of Mary’s Son, that Sin Offering was born, an innocent and perfectly holy Child who would one day become the world’s Greatest Sinner – not because He would Himself sin, but because the sins of all God’s own would be piled onto Him. With Mary obeying that command of Lev 12, the mandate for her holy Son was spelled out clearly; He would have to die for sin and so crush the devil.
Yet crush the devil no child can, even if he be innocent and perfectly holy…. Which man is there, dust, flesh, that can conquer the Prince of Darkness? That is why we need to note too Who the Father of this Child of Mary actually is. From where did this holy Child come? Who was He?
Who He is? Before you and I were conceived, we did not exist. That is the normal course of things; through the coming together of man and wife the Lord God brings into existence a new human being, one with no history. But with the Son of Mary it was different. Before He went to the cross to pay for sin, Jesus asked the Father in heaven to “glorify Me in Your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (John 17:5). The Holy Spirit adds that “He was with God in the beginning” (John 1:2). In fact, the Child born to Mary called God His Father because He was the Son of God, was with the Father in glory from all eternity. This One came to earth, and therefore was mighty to save.
Think about it a moment, and marvel! The only Son of God left the comforts and splendor of heaven, and exchanged it for life with fallen, sinful man…. Those whom Paul describes as “powerless”, “ungodly”, “sinful”, “God’s enemies” (Rom 5:6ff) became His mother, step-father, brothers and sisters, His neighbors, playmates, workmates. The glory of heaven, where angels sang His praise without ceasing, yes, covered their faces in His presence (Is 6), He exchanged for the humiliation of a stable, a feeding trough and swaddling clothes – and the company of sinners. The contrast between what He had and what He took on Himself defies description. But this is the marvel of Christmas: “the eternal Son of God, who is and remains true and eternal God, took upon Himself true human nature from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary, through the working of the Holy Spirit” (Lord’s Day 14.35). How marvelous, how absolutely wonderful!
And why? Why did the Son of God exchange the splendors of holy heaven for the squalor of fallen earth? He did it for your sake and mine. No, He didn’t do it only for us; He did it for the benefit of millions. But those millions include you and me! “For us and our salvation”, says the Nicene Creed, the Son of God emptied Himself. He came to earth so that He might be the Offspring of the woman who could crush the head of the serpent. He came, so that He might accomplish what no child born to any woman since the days of Genesis 3 –no matter how strong and noble, how cultured and popular– could accomplish. He came, true God in the flesh, Immanuel, God with us, so that sinners might be reconciled to the God we offended in paradise.
How awesome the thought! He came “for us and our salvation.” He came with me in mind when He became a man via His birth to Mary 2000 years ago! Surely, this wonderful news cannot leave a person untouched, cold. Here is gospel most incredible!
We’re mistaken, though, if we limit the fruit of that first Christmas to Christ’s work of reconciling sinners with God. Recall: because corrupt parents invariably bring forth corrupt children, a shadow hung over every birth in the Old Testament; every mother in Israel, and the father with her, had to bring a sin offering to the Lord after her period of uncleanness was over. Man and woman had brought another sinner into the world, and that deed needed atoning. That shadow over childbirth invariably extended also to the coming together of man and wife in the embrace of marriage. Though sex was such a wonderful gift of God to a married couple, and Solomon could sing this gift up so delightfully in his Song, yet this same Solomon had to conclude in Ecclesiastes that all was vanity, meaningless – including marriage and intercourse. In the light of Lev 12, we understand that; sinful man and sinful woman bring forth another sinful child – one that cannot crush the serpent, one instead that needs redemption from bondage to sin and Satan….
But now that God has broken the tragic cycle of sinful parent bringing forth a sinful child, the futility of childbirth has been taken away. For that Child born to Mary accomplished the mandate laid on Him when mother Mary brought that sin offering of Luke 2; He went to the cross to pay for sin – including the offence parents give to God when they bring another sinner into His world. There is total atonement even for that, and now God uses that broken mechanism –corrupt parents bringing forth corrupt children– for His own purposes! Though corrupt parents (you and I) still bring forth corrupt offspring (our children), God now sees us parents as holy in Christ and sees our children as holy in Christ also! Saints we parents might now be, thanks to Christ’s sacrifice, and saints our children are also, also thanks to Christ’s sacrifice; Jesus said of covenant children that the kingdom of heaven belonged to them (Mark 10:14) and Paul added that the children of believers are holy (1 Cor 7:14).
That is why the shadow is gone from childbirth today, and instead the sunshine of God lies over childbirth. That coming together of man and wife in loving embrace is God’s primary method of gathering His church. For He entrusts His children-by-covenant to believing parents, and He does that not first of all through adoption but through birth. Because of Christmas, conception and birth is now the means God uses to bring His children into the world.
That in turn is why the psalmist of long ago –though he lived before God intervened in the tragic cycle of corrupt parents bringing forth corrupt children, but he looked forward to the day when God would cause a Seed to be born to the woman that could crush Satan – that is why the psalmist of long ago could state so boldly that “sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him,” and even add that the man was blessed who had his quiver full of them (Ps 127:3,5). That is equally why the apostle Paul, after God had intervened in the reproductive cycle to use it for His ends, could tell Titus to “teach the older women” of the church –to do what?– to “train the younger women to love their husbands and children…, to be busy at home…, so that no one will malign the word of God” (2:3ff). Notice Paul’s talking up the role of mother and the blessing of children (see also 1 Tim 2:15; 5:14). For God uses the coming together of husband and wife for His church-gathering purposes, the means to place His children-by-covenant on this earth. What privilege there is, then, in childbirth!
Response of Faith
Precisely that sunshine God through Christ has brought over childbearing needs a response of faith. That response of faith praises God for the redemption He worked through the gift of His Son. So faith repeats after God the gospel of redemption: because of “the holy conception and birth of Christ” “He is our Mediator, and with His innocence and perfect holiness covers, in the sight of God, my sin, in which I was conceived and born” (Lord’s Day 14.36). It’s a response each of us needs to make, time and time again, whether we be young or old, man or woman, married or single, parent or not. Christ’s conception and birth is our salvation; He covers the sin, the depravity in which I was born – Hallelujah!
But the response of faith cannot be limited to delighting in the salvation God worked at Christmas; the response of faith needs to be completed with actions (James 2). Specifically, if the Lord God through Christ has sanctified conception and birth so that this is His primary means of gathering His church, couples need to see their loving embrace in that light. Sure, there is much more to say about intercourse than the blessing of conception; intercourse is first of all communication of love. That’s an aspect, however, into which I cannot go into detail today. The fact of the matter is that God is pleased to give childbirth such a central place in His church-gathering work –the children believing parents may receive are holy– and that is why man and wife may not leave the gift of children for some years down the track (till they are better established), and that is equally why man and wife may not quickly say that their quiver is full. Though our culture says that the world is full enough of people, and children are so very expensive, and you need to have time for yourself and for each other, God speaks so differently about children. Make no mistake: if God has caused the sunshine of redemption to shine over childbearing, if God would use the coming together of man and wife in His church-gathering work, you may fully expect the devil to protest, may fully expect the devil to whisper that children are a burden, a cost, a nuisance…. And the Lord wants us to resist the devil! No, if we can at this time of year delight in the wealth of Jesus’ holy conception and birth, we need to follow that faith through with action.
By the grace of God we confess that the Son of God became flesh through the working of the Holy Spirit upon the virgin Mary. It’s a glorious gospel that assures us of the forgiveness of our sins, including the depravity with which I was born. It’s a glorious gospel that reaches even into the bedroom and how we behave in the secrets of marriage. And it moves us to awe and adoration: what a God, to give so much for our redemption. What a God, today to use the loving embrace of man and wife in His church-gathering work. How wonderfully, wonderfully rich! To Him all praise!
September 20, 2005