People often challenge the idea that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
So how do we defend that truth? It can be tempting to want to sidestep difficult parts of the Bible like this, but today on Truth for Life, Alistair Begg takes us to Luke's Gospel to show us what a reasonable response looks like. This particular passage contains Luke's account of what we refer to as the virgin birth.
We might more accurately refer to it as the virgin conception. Because if you think about it, there was nothing that was unnatural about the birth of Jesus as it is recorded for us. He came in the normal fashion. He was delivered in the way that any healthy child would be delivered. His birth was, if you like, entirely natural. It was instead his conception which was supernatural. And this passage of Scripture combines with Matthew's record, which we have in Matthew chapter 1, to confront us with a truth which is, frankly, awesome, mind-stretching, and mind-boggling. And it is this—that Jesus was born of a human mother without any human father, that he became flesh through being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.
That is as succinct a summary as I can provide of the virgin birth or the virgin conception, whichever phraseology you may choose to use to describe it. Now, having said that, we want to immediately remind ourselves of the fact that Luke has already told us in the third verse that his Gospel is the product of careful investigation. Eyewitness accounts had been given to him. He paid careful attention to them. The phraseology suggests that he scrutinized them. And on the basis of his having done so, he then determined, under the direction of God the Holy Spirit, that it was incumbent upon him to provide what he refers to there in the third verse as an orderly account. Now, I mention this purposefully, because here we have someone who was a doctor, a physician, someone who by his nature would not be the kind of person to pay scant attention to detail, especially when it came to the matter of physical birth, etc. And it is this individual who, in writing his Gospel, clearly understands himself to be reporting fact—albeit a quite staggering fact, but nevertheless, fact just the same.
And there is no notion whatsoever that these Gospel writers were somehow dabbling in the realm of myth. The biblical teaching, as it is provided for us, on the subject of the virgin conception, is not marginal. It is of fundamental importance. Now, I take time in this introduction, because there are those who have denied and continue to deny the virgin conception as being a fact.
They pronounce it to be both wrong and unnecessary. And they suggest to us that if we—that is, those who would uphold any measure of Christian faith—if we are endeavoring to make an impact with thinking men and women, then we're going to have to abandon all the pieces of the New Testament—indeed, the Bible in total—we need to abandon all the difficult and unbelievable parts, so as to be able to offer to our friends a more believable version of Christianity. So let's have a Christianity that simply expresses news about love, which is, of course, part of the biblical record, which tells us of the nature of the Sermon on the Mount and turning the other cheek, which is, of course, part of Christ's instruction. But it all then stops with that. It is all very thisworldly.
It is all very acceptable, understandable, absorbable. And they say, This is the way to make a great gain amongst the ranks of those who are agnostic and unbelieving. Now, in urging us in that direction—and they are fairly urgent in their insistent approach—they are working on the basis of two presuppositions. First, that there exists the theological equivalent of precision surgery. Now, I'm taking this phrase precision surgery to mean all surgery. I can't imagine imprecise surgery. But I wonder if precision surgery doesn't make particular reference to things like keyhole surgery, where they cut a little hole in you, and then they go in and remove the offending article without doing anything detrimental to the rest of the body and leaving everything intact once you get up and on your feet again.
So, for example, they can go in and get your gallbladder, they can go in and get your appendix, they can go in and get a number of things, and you'll still be okay when they've patched you up and sent you on your way. These theologians say we can do the same thing with the Christian message. We cut a little keyhole, we go in, we get the virgin birth, we pull it out, excise it, remove it, put it on the side without doing anything detrimental to Christianity at all.
That's their claim. Secondly, they presuppose that by eliminating logical or metaphysical difficulties, we thereby create a more acceptable version of Christianity which our friends and neighbors will be quick to grab hold of. Now, both of these presuppositions are clearly questionable, and they need to be challenged.
However, traditionally, evangelical Christianity has had a mediocre track record of challenging such notions, mediocre in scrutinizing the credentials of Christianity. As a result, those of us who would be most forceful in our convictions, most clear, as we would put it, in our beliefs, most willing to share them, find ourselves, when confronted by this kind of approach, this kind of skepticism, answering our critics not with reasoned thought but largely simply with clichés or with affirmations, so that we think that we have ended the conversation admirably to be able to say, Well, you may think that, but I don't. Or, that may be your view, but that's not what I believe, and I know what I believe. Uh-huh. So do you expect your agnostic friend to be impressed by that affirmation? To somehow or another go, Oh, well, then, if that's the case, of course, forget everything I just said.
Let me just get right alongside you. It doesn't happen. We do not win people over to Christianity by dismissing their arguments fatuously or by ignoring their problems easily. Our friends and our neighbors have significant questions about the nature of Christianity, and understandably so. And not least of all, when it comes to the Christmas period, and they are confronted, because they can think and read the Bible, by the staggering notion that Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit without the normal process of insemination, and that this conception was virgin in its nature and thereby arrived in our time-place planet, this incarnate Son of God.
The friends and neighbors say, I need to talk to you about this. We're going to have to have a discussion, because this has been bedeviling me for the last thirty-five Christmases. I've never really been able to get to the problem.
Why is it? What is it that produces this kind of mindset that questions and doubts? Because it always hasn't been true in the framework of church.
Over the years, it hasn't always been this way. Well, those who reason in this fashion are largely in the lineage of a Scottish philosopher whose name will be known to most, namely David Hume. And if you remember your Philosophy 101, you will remember that Hume is the father of those who reasoned as follows. Before accepting that an event took place in the past, we need to be persuaded that it still takes place in the present. So if there was an event that could not reproduce itself, it wasn't an event at all. That's why scientists get so frustrated with unique events.
Because those of you who spend your days in labs spend your days trying to reproduce the same set of circumstances over and over and over again so that on the basis of repetition you may make deductions. If you then add to that the notion that if an act by definition is unrepeatable, it is unverifiable, then you end up saying there is no virgin conception, and there cannot possibly be a resurrection. Because both of those events, by definition, are unique, and they are unrepeatable. Now, Christianity insists that the virgin conception, virgin birth, was a unique historical event. If virgin conception was a regular event, seen by obstetricians on a weekly basis, then there would be no difficulty in accepting the notion in relationship to Jesus of Nazareth, would there?
But it is the very fact that there aren't those things that makes it such a big deal. It is to describe Christ's arrival in this way, to make much of the fact of who this Jesus is. Without the virgin conception, his arrival would not stand out. Without it, he would not be different. Without it, there would be nothing in his coming that would say anything substantially about the nature of Christ. So what is the thing that stands out? Where is the difficulty in the passage that leads us to the conclusion that there is something striking about what's going on here?
It is in this. There is no human explanation for the way in which God became incarnate. Now, you will note, as you read your Bibles, as I hope you do, that the serious treatment that is given to Christ's supernatural entry and his supernatural exit from the world by the Gospel writers is because these events were totally out of the ordinary. That's why they're here. Because Luke, having conducted a careful investigation and listened to the eyewitness reports, having brought his background to bear upon the subject, sits down to write an orderly account and here at the very outset of it produces this most mind-boggling of notions.
Why? Because it's a fact. And at the back end of the life of this Jesus of Nazareth, we have angels standing, and him being taken up into heaven, and the angels saying, Why are you standing around bothered about this? He will come back in the same manner as you have seen him go. So at the end of his days, if people are standing around in total, awesome wonder, and at the arrival of his days on earth, they are standing about in the exact same way. Why would we expect it to be any different? You see, those who argue against this notion are largely circular in their argument.
And this is how it goes. One, virgin conception does not happen. Two, therefore, Jesus was not conceived of a virgin.
Three, end of subject. Now, don't fold before that. And don't fall into the trap of them telling you, when you say, Well, I think that's a circular argument. They say, Well, you just believe a circular argument as well, because you start from the fact that virgin conception does happen, therefore Jesus was conceived of a virgin, therefore end of subject. No, we don't. We start with this book, the Bible. And we read the Bible as the Word of God. And, of course, now when we're talking with an agnostic friend, we go back and have a discussion about the Word of God, why we believe it's the Word of God, but that's not for this morning.
You will be relieved to know. But starting from the basis of the Bible, we say, Here is a New Testament document closer to the events of the time of Christ than most historical documents that have been left to us. And on the basis of this, as Christians, we come to the pages of this book, we find the stuff that is material for us to consider, and we say to ourselves, How are we to account for this?
What is the most probable explanation of this? And as we say to our friends, We go through this material, much of which is incredible. We recognize that it is not incongruous that a supernatural person, one who is both God and man, should both make his entry and his exit from our time-space capsule in a supernatural way. In fact, what would be incongruous is that the God-man would arrive and leave without any sense of this immense drama.
And that, you see, is why we must always hold in Scripture these issues together. Once you have examined the evidence for the resurrection and you have been forced on your knees to believe that the most reasonable explanation for the birth of the church, the change in the disciples, the change from Saturday to Sunday in worship, the expansion of the church, and everything that has taken place—you see, the only reasonable explanation for this is that Jesus rose from the dead just as he promised. As soon as you go there, then you should have no difficulty going back to the virgin conception and saying, Therefore, for a resurrected Christ who was the creator of the ends of the earth, who created everything, ex nihilo, who made everything out of nothing, why would it be any difficulty for him to bring about the arrival of his Son, the incarnate God, by means of a virgin conception? The essential condition, the Bible says, of receiving light from heaven, on this matter as in any other matter, is not our sophistication but our simplicity. The reason that some of you who sit regularly in worship at Parkside, remain in your agnosticism, remain in your unbelief, remain unconvinced, is, if I may say so to you kindly, the problem of your sophistication. You are waiting on your sophisticated plane to have everything sophisticatedly knocked into line for you in a way that you won't have to drop down one measure at all in order to embrace this Christ.
I have news for you. Said Jesus, the Lord of the universe has hidden these things from the wise and the learned, and he has revealed them to little children. You will never come to faith until you bow down on your knees, like a child, not in childishness but in childlike trust, and say, Lord, I believe.
Help me with my unbelief. And there is no one who provides for us a better illustration of that than Mary herself in verse 38. When the whole encounter has evolved, she says, I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said.
I actually have four phrases that I would like to use to trace a line through this passage. Verse 27, pledged to be married to a man named Joseph. Verse 31, you will be with child. Verse 34, how will this be? And verse 38, may it be.
If you allow me five minutes, I'd like to do my first point—pledged to be. The link between the previous verses and this can be understood when we remind ourselves again that this was an orderly account. Luke has provided us the news of the annunciation of the one who was to be the herald, namely, John the Baptist. Now he comes to the annunciation of the one of whom the herald would speak, namely, Christ the Messiah.
So we have these birth annunciations running alongside one another. He sets it in a context by letting us know that Elizabeth, who was part of the previous narrative, is now in her sixth month of pregnancy. You remember verse 24 tells us that she had gone into seclusion.
Well, apparently her seclusion is over, she's now begun to show, and presumably, it's time to let everybody know. Gabriel, who is the same angel as involved in the last one, is dispatched on his duties. He is to go not to Jerusalem, to the home of a princess, but he is to go to Nazareth, to the home of this young lass who was engaged to the village carpenter.
He comes to this young lady. He's chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. He's chosen the little things of the world to bring down the strong. And here in the incarnation, he does the same thing. He doesn't go and get somebody who's really prominent, somebody that everybody knows. No, the people say, Mary? Carpenter Joe? Unbelievable.
Unbelievable. Mary was pledged, or betrothed. It means more than engaged. It means that in the presence of witnesses, she had solemnly committed herself to Joseph.
The marriage feast had not been eaten, the marriage bed had not been enjoyed, but they were linked together in an indissoluble link that could only be separated by divorce. And in this context, Gabriel comes with his initial greeting. Greetings, he says, you who are highly favored. And his greeting is much more than a simple introduction, because he uses the language of the Old Testament, which is always used in the Old Testament with reference to a person chosen by God for a special purpose in salvation history. So, verse 29 is no surprise. Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what such a greeting could possibly mean.
In other words, she decided to think about it. And I hope that you and I will also think about it. That God will save us from cliché-ridden affirmations. That he will save us from sentimentalism.
That he will save us from treating our Bibles as a little promise book, whereby we just grab out of it whatever we like, and we leave all the difficult parts behind, and we never mention them to our neighbors and our friends. Without the difficult parts, there is no Christianity. What use is there in a Christ who is merely naturally born, the son of a Jewish carpenter who told lots of stories, died, ended his life in a Palestinian grave which was a cul-de-sac of all his religious expectations?
What possible use is there in that? No, Christ is far greater and calls us to bow down before him and to worship him. When we try to eliminate the challenging parts of the Bible, what we end up with is not Christianity. That's Alistair Begg on Truth for Life. As Alistair just taught, it can be tempting to want to skip over some of the hard parts of the Bible, but our mission at Truth for Life is to teach God's Word every day without adding to it or taking away from it, because we know that all Scripture is God-breathed. That's why we love to share God's Word far and wide. We trust God's Spirit will work in the hearts of listeners who hear this daily program so that unbelievers will become committed followers of Jesus, and we hope that the holidays provide you with an opportunity to plant a seed that God can nurture and grow. You'll find some terrific gospel-sharing books on our website at truthforlife.org slash gifts. They're all available to purchase at our cost, so if you have some folks still left on your shopping list, you'll find high-quality, affordable gifts in our online store, gifts that point others to Jesus.
And when you add a donation at checkout, you're supporting the work of the gospel through Truth for Life. As our way of saying thank you, you'll be invited to request a copy of a 31-day devotional titled Be Thou My Vision. Each daily entry in this book guides you through a time of worship and prayer that follows a public worship format. This book draws from historical authors, creeds, catechisms, and prayers to present a rich experience and a time of deep reflection that you'll benefit from greatly over the course of a month, and then you can repeat the month-long devotional process as often as you like through the year. Request your copy of the book Be Thou My Vision when you add a donation at checkout after you visit truthforlife.org slash gifts. I'm Bob Lapine. We hope you have a wonderful weekend and are able to worship with your local church. Join us Monday when we'll find out why science doesn't disprove miracles. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life where the Learning is for Living.
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