Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 14
Question 35. What is the meaning of these words—“He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary”?
Answer. That God’s eternal Son, who is, and continueth true and eternal God, took upon Him the very nature of man, of the flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary, by the operation of the Holy Ghost; that He might also be the true seed of David, like unto His brethren in all things, sin excepted.
Question 36. What profit dost thou receive by Christ’s holy conception and nativity?
Answer. That He is our Mediator; and with His innocence and perfect holiness, covers in the sight of God, my sins, wherein I was conceived and brought forth.
The object of our faith is the person and work of Jesus Christ. In the previous Lord’s Days, by looking at the Savior’s names, we have looked at His person. Now we begin to look at His work by studying the five stages of His humiliation: 1) His birth; 2) His lifelong suffering; 3) His death; 4) His burial, and 5) His descension into hell.
In His state of humiliation, Jesus stands before God, guilty for the sins of His people. This explains the intense suffering of His earthly life. He Himself was never guilty of any sin, but, voluntarily taking our guilt on Himself, He condescends from the glory of heaven down to the depths of the wrath of God in hell (Phil. 2:6-8).
This humiliation begins with the incarnation, which means His coming into flesh (carna = flesh).
Modernists deny the incarnation of Jesus Christ. They teach that the idea of God coming as a man is an adaptation from pagan religions. They say that Jesus did have an earthly father, and that the word “virgin” in Scripture simply refers to a young woman. This denial is antichristian. “Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist” (). It is antichristian because the truth of the incarnation is essential to the gospel. Without it, we have no gospel.
The Scriptures, especially the gospels, teach very clearly the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The gospels emphasize especially two things about the incarnation: 1) the virgin birth and 2) Jesus’ lowly birth.
The Virgin Birth
When Jesus was born, His mother Mary was still a virgin. Jesus’ conception was not the result of human intercourse, and Mary remained a virgin till after the birth of Jesus.
Luke tells us that when the angel told Mary she would be the mother of the Savior, she asked, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” In response, the angel explained, in this way, what would happen: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (). The Christ child was conceived in the womb of Mary by a wonder.
Matthew tells us that when Joseph heard that Mary was with child, he was of a mind to break off their relationship, assuming she had been unfaithful. He was obviously not the father of this child, and he was ready to end their marriage plans right then, except God intervened. An angel of God came and told Joseph that it was God Himself who had created the life in Mary’s womb: “that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost” ().
The virgin birth points to the divinity of Jesus. He did not begin to exist at the moment of His conception and birth, but the eternal Word was made flesh (; ). At the same time, Jesus did not cease to be God. The Heidelberg Catechism explains this very carefully by saying that He “took upon Him the very nature of man.” God remained God, but added to His existence, in the Second Person, a human nature.
Because of the incarnation, our Savior could be both human and divine—sharing the very nature of God and at the same time being in every way a human like us, except for sin. If Jesus were born of two earthly parents, then He would have shared in Adam’s fallen nature. But, because He did not have an earthly father, He did not personally share in the guilt or depravity of the human race.
All this qualified Him perfectly to be our Mediator (see Lord’s Day 6), and shows to us why the incarnation is essential to the gospel.
His Lowly Birth
The whole gospel story is one of condescension, God coming down to sinful man. It is a story of grace, of undeserved loving attention from God to sinners. We didn’t climb to Him, but He condescended to us. Immediately after the first sin, God comes to Adam and Eve, as they trembling fled from His presence, with a word of grace and gospel. In Egypt, God remembered His people and sent Moses to deliver them. In the promised land, God came and dwelt among them in the tabernacle. So, in Jesus Christ, God condescends to us, not only to be with us, but to be like us.
“Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” ().
The gospel accounts tell, in detail, the story of Jesus’ birth, emphasizing the lowliness, poverty, and rejection of the Savior. He was born in a stable, wrapped in rags, and laid in a manger. There was no room for Him in the inn, because He was despised and rejected of men. The gospels give these details, not to arouse sympathy in our hearts for Him, as though He had it worse than any other baby ever born, but rather to emphasize for us the depths of His condescension. All the lowliness of Jesus’ birth is a sign of His humiliation. In it, we see the weight of sin upon Him, and God dealing with Him as guilty. This is where our sin took the one who was made sin for us. And this lowliness of His birth would lead, inevitably, to the death of the cross and the pains of hell. The cross cast its shadow, already, over the manger.
The birth of Jesus Christ differed from every other birth in this, that He was born by a choice of His own will. He chose the time, place, and circumstances of His own birth. We have no say in our conception and birth, but He voluntarily came into our flesh. It did not happen to Him, but rather He did it. In this we see Him busy for us, from the very beginning of His life. As He lay in the manger, He was already laying down His life for us.
The incarnation of Christ is more than a doctrine! It is more than a precise theological understanding and statement! Here, the voice of the self-sacrificing love of God speaks. Here the grace of God is revealed.
The benefit of Christ’s birth comes to me only when I understand the judgment of His becoming man. When He chose to become man, what He chose was the wrath and judgment of God.
For my original guilt. For my actual sins. For my sinfulness of nature.
By the holy birth of Jesus we are condemned. By His birth Christ shows that there are not just a few blemishes in us that need repair. Rather, we need replacement. Our birth is not good. Our nature is corrupt. We are born guilty. We are sinful in our lives. We deserve death for this.
The benefit comes to me as I personally see why Jesus had to be born.
Because Jesus was conceived and brought forth without sin, I am forgiven and covered of the sins in which I was conceived and brought forth. Generally, our minds are not troubled by our original guilt. Instead, we use it as an excuse for the sins we commit. If I understand original guilt, I see how wretched I truly am in God’s eyes. Jesus, because He had no sin, is able to, and does, take on Himself the guilt and corruption with which I am born.
Not only this, but His life of perfection, His active obedience to the law of God, is also provided as a covering for all the sins of my life. I need redemption not only from human corruption, but from the guilt of all my committed sins. God looks at me in Christ as though I had never had nor committed any sin. He views Christ’s perfect obedience and righteousness as mine.
Another benefit is that I have a Mediator. Having a Mediator means there is peace between me and God. As a man, He suffered as my substitute, removing the curse of God from me. Now I am righteous. Now I know God’s love. Now there is peace in my soul as regards God’s attitude toward me.
One further benefit is that, having a Savior who was made in all points like us, yet without sin, we have a merciful and sympathetic Savior and God. In our lives we will know suffering, we will face strong temptation, we will experience the heavy hand of God on us. Jesus knows all these sorrows, and so we should turn to Him as the One who can help us in our time of need.
What a wonderful, perfectly suited, Savior we have! All as a result of God’s grace to us poor sinners.
Questions for Discussion
1. What is meant by Jesus’ humiliation? What belongs to His humiliation?
2. What does the Bible say about those who deny that Jesus is God who came in the flesh?
3. Prove from the Bible that the one who is our Savior had an eternal existence as God?
4. Why is the virgin birth essential to the gospel?
5. How was it that Jesus by His human birth did not participate in the guilt and corruption of humanity? Why is this important?
6. What was unique about the birth of Jesus?
7. Describe the poverty and rejection of Jesus’ birth. To what do these point us?
8. Contrast our nature at birth with that of Jesus. What does the sinless birth of Jesus tell us about ourselves?
9. What benefits are ours as a result of Christ’s incarnation?
10. How do we by faith personally embrace, not only the fact, but the significance of Jesus’ birth?