Why Did God Become Man?
It’s that time of year again! Advent – the wait for Christmas. Yet, every year more British people drift away from the most substantial reasons to bother with it. We now call it the ‘holiday season’, forgetting that holiday means Holy Day. So what’s ‘holy’ or ‘dazzlingly different’ about it? What makes December 25th so special? After all, every two seconds three babies are conceived somewhere in the world but what’s different about Jesus? Jesus really was born, beginning life at conception as all human beings do. He did not suddenly appear as a full-grown male around 30 years of age. Nothing unusual about that then.
But wait. God took only some of the human components and genetic make-up from the ovaries of Mary his mother, a virgin Jewish maiden of royal lineage. From them he then cloned the embryo of Jesus, bypassing the normal intervention of male sperm and its chromosome complement, presumably through a creative miracle which subsidised the lack in Mary’s ovum. Matthew says ‘She was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit’ (1:18), and notes that Joseph’s suspicions were quelled by the explanation, ‘What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’ (1:20). Many struggle with the apparent naivety of believing this.
Mary did too. In answer to Mary’s query of the angel as to how she could be pregnant when she was still a virgin and had never ‘played around’, she was told ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35). The actual physical processes involved in this are not explained medically, but the activity of the Holy Spirit is clearly credited as the source of the resulting miracle child. The most obvious reason for this is that the child should be holy, and that Adamic sin and corruption should not be inherited by Jesus. Male paternity was bypassed to ensure this.
If rational scepticism raises hard questions beyond those already voiced by Mary and Joseph themselves, the response of the angel is as terse in its rebuke as it is in its brevity: ‘For nothing is impossible with God’ (Luke 1:37). No further explanation seemed necessary. The process from that point onwards was normal in every way and concluded in Mary’s labour and painful delivery, as happens with other newborns. Both Matthew and Luke attribute a human family tree to Jesus, affirming that Jesus inherited genetic traits from his forbears as we all do, ancestors that included the prostitute Rahab and gentile Ruth (Matthew 1:5). Theologically, the virgin birth of Christ is crucially important. Why?
1. We are told it occurred, and the integrity of scripture is at stake here. This truly is ‘Good news, good news for all mankind’. And God himself announces it!
2. The whole of human life had to be redeemed, not just part of it. Early church theologian, Irenaeus (b. 130AD), wrote ‘He came to save all through himself; all that is, who through him are born unto God, infants, children, boys, young men and old. Therefore he passed through every stage of life: he was made an infant for infants, sanctifying infancy; a child among children, sanctifying those of this age, an example to them of filial affection, righteousness and obedience; a young man amongst young men, an example to them, and sanctifying them to the Lord. So also amongst the older men; that he might be a perfect master for all, not solely in revelation of the truth, but also in respect of each stage of life. And then he came even unto death that he might be “the firstborn from the dead, holding the pre-eminence among all” (Colossians 1:18), the Prince of Life, before and preceding all’ (Adv. Haer. II. xxii. 4).
3. Transmission of sin is related to the father. Not because a man is more sinful than a woman, implying we would all be sinless if we didn’t have a male parent. Nor because sex is the source of sin. But because God held Adam primarily responsible for sin’s invasion, though Eve sinned first chronologically (Genesis 3:6; I Timothy 2:14). It is ‘in Adam all die’ (I Corinthians 15:22). Adam was more responsible, not more sinful than the woman (I Timothy 3:14).
4. It has great value in symbolizing the incarnation. God became man. If Christ had been born in the normal way, then his beginnings would have been unexceptional and non-miraculous to human observation. But ‘the Word became flesh’ here! The virgin birth serves to authenticate his claims to a unique divine status, whilst identifying him totally with us in our plight, due to sin’s universal fallout.
5. It illustrates many truths concerning salvation. For example, we see that (a) Salvation is clearly supernatural. With Christ God began a completely new prototype humanity (John 1:12-13). All subsequent ‘born again’ or regenerate people in Christ since then are also supernatural products, because we are termed a ‘new creation’ in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Humans are helpless when it comes to salvation. We cannot initiate the first step in the process, nor even introduce the Saviour into society. Salvation belongs exclusively to God. He saved us from the de-humanising of mankind, corruption and death. (b) Salvation is a gift of grace. Mary herself was undeserving, and needed a Saviour too (Luke 1:38; 46-55). She had nothing to offer, not even a husband. So God moved in grace. (c) Christ is unique. He was a highly unusual child and man, as evidenced by his conception. His existence preceded his birth, and he was the only child in history who chose his own mother. (d) God has total sovereignty over nature. He is its creator, and is regularly interventionist within it. Christ is not a product of ‘natural evolution’ but a completely new beginning involving the fiat creative handiwork of the Father, who works the totally improbable to prove that ‘nothing is impossible with God’ (Luke 1:38).
Robert Clarke once observed ‘Christ was God, not because he was virgin born. He was virgin born because he was God.’ Here then, is the real ‘reason for the season’, and why we should all recover from our spiritual amnesia and make merry throughout it!