Christ Conceived by the Holy Spirit
By John Piper
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end." And Mary said to the angel, "How shall this be, since I have no husband?" And the angel said to 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. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible."
One recent book calls the Holy Spirit the shy member of the Trinity. His ministry is to point away from himself to the wonder of God the Son and God the Father. Being filled with the Spirit means being filled with love for Christ. When Jesus promised the Spirit (in John 16:14), he said, "He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you." The Spirit is shy; he is self-effacing. When we look toward him, he steps back and pushes forward Jesus Christ.
Pursuing the Holy Spirit Indirectly
Therefore, in seeking to be filled and empowered by the Spirit we must pursue him indirectly—we must look to the wonder of Christ. If we look away from Jesus and seek the Spirit and his power directly, we will end up in the mire of our own subjective emotions. The Spirit does not reveal himself. The Spirit reveals Christ. The fullness of the Spirit is the fullness that he gives as we gaze on Christ. The power of the Spirit is the power we feel in the presence of Christ. The joy of the Spirit is the joy we feel from the promises of Christ. Many of us know what it is to crouch on the floor and cry out to the Holy Spirit for joy and power, and experience nothing; but the next day devote ourselves to earnest meditation on the glory of Jesus Christ and be filled with the Spirit.
Devote yourselves to seeing and feeling the grandeur of the love of God in Jesus Christ and you will be so in harmony with the Holy Spirit that his power will flow mightily in your life. Christian spiritual experience is not a vague religious emotion. It is an emotion with objective content, and the content is Jesus Christ. The shy member of the Trinity does mighty work, but he never puts himself in the limelight. You might say he is the limelight that puts the attributes of God the Father and the person of Christ into sharp relief.
The Quiet Work of the Spirit in the Incarnation
Therefore, when the time came for the eternal Son of God to be sent by his Father into the world, the work of the Holy Spirit was a quiet, unobtrusive work in the service of the Father and the Son. Through him the Father caused the Son to be conceived in Mary the virgin. So from the very beginning of Christ's incarnation the Holy Spirit was quietly doing what needed to be done to put forward Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of man.
In order to appreciate the work of the Spirit in the virgin birth of Christ, let's follow the Scripture context as the Spirit inspired it in Luke 1:26–37. Predictably, the greatness of the Son has pride of place. But that's as the Spirit would have it. And he will be pleased if we taste a new sense of wonder at the glory of Christ.
God's Works and God's Word
Verse 26: "In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth." The "sixth month" refers to the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy with John the Baptist. We will see the importance of this in verse 37. Gabriel appears in Scripture only two other times: in Daniel as an interpreter of visions, and here in Luke 1:19 as the announcer of John the Baptist's birth. What's significant in this verse is God's choice to announce to Mary ahead of time what he is about to do. Again and again in Scripture this is the pattern: a word and then a deed. Why? I think it's because God wants his deeds to be understood, and he wants to be sure that he gets credit for them. Events by themselves without words of explanation are ambiguous. The word of God interprets the work of God and takes away the ambiguity.
There are two lessons for us here in passing. 1) Beware of reading extraordinary meaning into unusual circumstances when there is no clear word of Scripture to guide your interpretation. When God intends his work to teach, he adds his word. 2) The other lesson is that we should never settle for a merely silent witness to Christ. How we live is crucial, but if God thought his own work needed verbal explanation, how much more ours.
Verse 27: "Gabriel was sent from God to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary." Two crucial facts here are:
1. that Mary was a virgin, and
2. Joseph was of the house of David.
The Virginity of Mary
The virginity of Mary is important for two reasons.
1. She Is Sexually Pure
a) It means that she's sexually pure. She has not slept with her fiancé, or any other man. That would have been fornication, and God abominates fornication.
Of course, not every woman in Jesus' lineage is so clean. There was Bathsheba the adulteress and Tamar who seduced her father-in-law. These things can be forgiven, as many of you have discovered. But don't overlook the importance of Mary. When God chose a mother for his Son, he chose a virgin. Virginity before marriage is important because the recipient of God's best gifts ought to be pure.
2. She Wasn't Pregnant Already
Mary's virginity is also important because it meant she wasn't pregnant. God aimed to make known that the conception of Jesus in the womb of a woman was owing to no man. So he chose a virgin. And a virgin conceived a child whose Father was God and not man.
Joseph's Davidic Lineage
But it was still important that Joseph be of the house of David because the legal relationship he had with Jesus put Jesus in the Davidic line and enabled him to fulfill the promises made to the Son of David, which we will see in a moment.
A Gift of Grace in a Perplexing Package
Verse 28: "And [Gabriel] came to her and said, 'Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!"' The word for "favored" here is used one other time in the New Testament (in Ephesians 1:6) where it means the free bestowal of grace. So the very first thing Gabriel says to Mary is that she is about to receive a free bestowal of God's grace. She does not deserve this honor. It is grace. There are other virgins in Nazareth. God could have prepared them. Grace eliminates all boasting. Parents are prone to boast about their children. How much more if one of your children is the Son of God. So Gabriel quenches the spirit of pride before he does anything else. "The Lord is with you, Mary, in a way you can't fathom. But never forget, it is a favor, a free gift of grace."
Verse 29: "But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be." I would wager that you have discovered in your own life that grace does not always come with a welcome face. The highest and most precious gifts of God do not always come to us in attractive colors. Grace can perplex. Grace can frighten. The grace of healing may have the face, of a hypodermic needle or a surgeon's knife. The grace of patience may have the face of pain. The grace of humility may have the face of defeat. O, how we need to learn from Mary not to lash out at God for the frightening forms of grace. Instead like her we ought to wait and "consider in our minds" how this strange event might be grace.
God will often make it plain. Verse 30: "The angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.'" He reasserts the key word. Grace. I bring grace, Mary. Let the assurance that this is grace take away your fear. And here is the grace I bring (verses 31–33): "Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father, David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." This is the heart of the passage. This is where the shy member of the Trinity (who inspired this Scripture) does his best work. He magnifies Jesus, not himself.
Five Descriptions of Mary's Child
Five things Gabriel says about Mary's child.
1. His Name Will Be Jesus
His name will be Jesus. In Hebrew: Joshua, which means Savior or Deliverer. Gabriel loves to highlight grace. Before he tells Mary of Christ's greatness and dignity and power, he tells her how he is going to use this greatness and dignity and power. He is going to use it as a Savior. So don't be afraid, Mary, your child will be your Savior. He will be Jesus.
2. He Will Be Great
"He will be great" (v. 32). Jesus is great. He is very great. A Christian who feels ashamed of Jesus Christ is like a candle feeling ashamed of the sun. Our Lord Jesus has been "appointed the heir of all things. Through him God created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe with the word of his power." Is there anything great in the world that excites you, that you go out of your way to see or hear? Christ made it! And he is ten million times greater in every respect, except sin. If you took all the greatest thinkers of every country and every century of the world and put them in a room with Jesus, they would shut their mouths and listen to the greatness of his wisdom. All the greatest generals would listen to his strategy. All the greatest musicians would listen to his music theory and his performance on every instrument. There is nothing that Jesus cannot do a thousand times better than the person you admire most in any area of human endeavor under the sun. Words fail to fill the greatness of Jesus. So Gabriel leaves it simple and yet so profound: "He will be great!"
3. He Will Be Called Son of the Most High
Gabriel says, "He will be called Son of the Most High." It's true that disciples of Jesus are also called "sons of the Most High" (6:35) and so some say that the sonship of Jesus is not anything more than what you or I have. I doubt that for two reasons. One is that Gabriel is giving a description of what distinguishes Jesus: he is great, he is king, he is eternal. It would be pointless and out of place to say: he is merely a son of God by faith like you and me. The other reason is that in Luke 8:28 a demon cries to Jesus, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High? I beseech you, do not torment me." The demons recognize that Jesus' sonship is not like ours. As the Son of God he has the right and power to torment the forces of Satan. So Gabriel means: Jesus is uniquely God's Son, the divine Word and image of God, begotten from all eternity.
4. He Will Sit on David's Throne
Gabriel says, "The Lord God will give him the throne of his Father, David." Since Mary's son will be the Savior of his people, will be superior in greatness, and will be called the Son of the Most High, it is fitting and inevitable that he will be king. He will fulfill all the prophecies that a son of David will rule over Israel. But not only over Israel. Isaiah 11:10 says, "In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwelling shall be glorious" (cf. Luke 2:32). Mary's son will some day rule the world (Luke 2:32).
5. His Kingdom Will Never End
Gabriel says, "He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Do you see what this promise means? It means that Jesus is alive and ruling over his people at 11:50 AM, Sunday, March 11, 1984. Do you believe that? Jesus, Savior, Son of God, King of the world, is governing just as realistically today as Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher or Helmut Kohl. If Gabriel has spoken the truth, THE ISSUE in 1984, no matter where you live on this planet, is: Will you bow before the kingship of Jesus and obey the rule of his kingdom?
How Can a Virgin Conceive?
Now Mary catches her breath, and instead of mocking the impossible, she humbly asks (in v. 34), "How can this be since I have no husband?" She was ready to believe that she might give birth to the Messiah, but that she might give birth as a virgin was beyond comprehension. But her attitude was humble and open and so Gabriel answered her as far as he was allowed. Verse 35: "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." 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. And it should cause us to smile with pleasure that the shy member of the Trinity should be assigned the delicate and wonderful and mysterious work of causing the virgin to conceive—to conceive the One whose greatness he will magnify for ever. It's all so beautifully appropriate.
With God the Holy Spirit Nothing Is Impossible
In verses 36 and 37 Gabriel gives the pregnancy of barren Elizabeth as evidence for Mary that "with God nothing is impossible." The Holy Spirit may be shy, but he is also omnipotent. What a tribute to Jesus Christ that an omnipotent member of the Trinity exists to magnify his greatness.
So let us conclude where Mary does, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word" (v. 38). Can you say that: "Let the Holy Spirit do with me as he pleases"? Do you trust the Spirit enough to say: "I am your slave; take me; use your omnipotent power to put me where you want me, when you want me there, doing what you want me to do"? Do you know why we can entrust ourselves to the Holy Spirit? Because he exists to exalt the glory of Jesus Christ. Therefore, if the heartbeat of your life is the glory of Jesus Christ, the Spirit will empower and help you with all his might. Let's live and speak so that men and women in Minneapolis and Morocco and Mongolia might know that Jesus Christ is a great Savior, the Son of the Most High, and the never-ending King of kings. That's the passion of the Holy Spirit. To be full of that is to be full of him.
By John Piper. ©Desiring God. Website: www.desiringgod.org
Email: mail@desiringGod.org. Toll Free: 888.346.4700.
The Forgotten Trinity
James R. White
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