The Virgin Birth of God’s Son
According to Luke 1:1–4, the Gospel of Luke and its sequel the Acts of the Apostles were written to help Theophilus (and all subsequent readers) know the truth of the Christian teachings he had heard and thus come to have a well-grounded faith in Jesus Christ and be saved.
In order to help Theophilus grasp the fullest significance of who Jesus Christ was and what he accomplished, Luke takes Theophilus back to the very beginning of Jesus’ life. He describes more fully than any other gospel writer the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth and the announcement of Jesus’ birth, then the birth of John and the birth of Jesus. By describing the origin of John and the origin of Jesus side by side, he shows how their destinies dovetail in God’s plan, and also how Jesus is vastly superior to his forerunner. Luke’s narrative also highlights the similarities and differences between the way Zechariah and Mary received the word from Gabriel about their sons. Zechariah is reproved for his unbelief (1:20); Mary is blessed for her belief (1:45). In this way, Luke admonishes Theophilus and us not to be like Zechariah and demand more signs of God’s faithfulness than a humble and open heart would require. Instead, be like Mary: “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
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Tonight I want to focus in on the words that Gabriel brought to Mary about the son she would bear. Let’s read Luke 1:26–38.
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 can 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.” And Mary said, “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
The first thing Gabriel reveals about Jesus is that “He will be great” (1:32). This Jesus is going to be a great man. That is the first thing Theophilus needs to hear about Jesus. You may have never heard of Nazareth, Theophilus, and this young girl may be poor and obscure, but don’t judge by merely human outward appearances. Her son is going to be great. You no doubt have studied the lives of many great men in Greek and Roman history. But do not be deceived Theophilus: “What is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). In spite of all appearances to the contrary, this son of Mary is going to be great. Come with me, Theophilus. In this gospel we are setting out on a journey towards a new view of greatness. Don’t judge prematurely. Give yourself time for this man to prove himself. It is not easy for you, a noble Roman official, to comprehend a statement like, “He who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48). But it is true, and Jesus himself will prove it to you, if you listen now to what I have to say and then watch how he lives and teaches. This Jesus is going to be great. Now learn greatness from him.
The next thing Gabriel says about Jesus is that “He will be called Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). The term “Most High” is simply another term for God as verse 35 shows: “The child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” The two terms are put together in Luke 8:28 where the Gerasene demoniac cries out to Jesus, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” Mary, this child is going to be the Son of God.
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What does it mean to say Jesus is the Son of God? This is a fairly common phrase and refers to many different persons. For example angels are sometimes called sons of God. Job 1:6 says, “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them” (cf. Psalm 29:1; 82:6). Also the nation Israel was called God’s son. God tells Moses in Exodus 4:22, “You shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my first-born son and I say to you, Let my son go that he may serve me.'” And of course Christians are called sons of God: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:14). Or even more close to our text, Jesus says in Luke 6:35, “Love your enemies and do good and lend expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great and you will be sons of the Most High.”
This broad and diverse use of the term “son of God” shows the need for a very careful reading of Scripture. One of the demands of careful reading is that we not insist that words or phrases always mean the same thing. The same word or the same phrase can mean many different things. When you speak or write, what you want is for people to ask what you mean by your words, not what someone else may mean by them. And not only that, you want people to decide what you mean by your words now, not what you meant by them five years ago. Well, it’s just the same with biblical writers. We must not assume that what Luke means by a word or phrase is the same as what Moses meant by that same word or phrase. Nor should we assume that “Son of the Most High” in Luke 1 means the same as “sons of the Most High” in Luke 6.
The principle to follow, in order to be fair to a writer, is: try to use the sentences closest at hand in deciding what a word or phrase means; and then use the more distant analogies, if there is some clue that the same issue is at stake in both places.
Now if we follow this principle in Luke 1 we find two things:
1) there is an Old Testament analogy to Jesus’ sonship, and yet
2) his sonship is unique in all the world.
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1) The nearest sentence to help shed light on what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God is in the last half of verse 32: “And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David.” This means that Jesus will be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, the king of Israel. These words give the fulfillment of a prophecy to David in 2 Samuel 7:12–16. Let’s look at this text together. The prophet Nathan says to King David,
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your son after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. When he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men; but I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
Therefore, there is no reason to doubt that Gabriel is presenting Jesus as the one who will ultimately fulfill this prophecy to David. What does this tell us about Jesus’ sonship?
Here we have to be very careful. The relationship between Old Testament prophecies and New Testament fulfillment is not simple. It is complex and can lead us into serious doctrinal error if we do not think with great care. 2 Samuel 7:14 promises that the offspring or seed of David referred to in verse 12 would be God’s son. If that’s all it said the relationship to Christ might be simple. But the next sentence in verse 14 says, “When he commits iniquity I will chasten him with the rod of men and with the stripes of the sons of men, but I will not take my steadfast love from him.” The New Testament witness is that Christ was without any sin at all (Hebrews 4:15). Then is Christ a fulfillment of this prophecy or is he not?
There is no doubt that the New Testament views Christ as the fulfillment of this prophecy. Gabriel’s words show this but so do Peter’s in Acts 2:30 even more clearly: “Being therefore a prophet and knowing therefore that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, David foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ that he was not abandoned to Hades nor did his flesh see corruption.” Peter sees the resurrection and ascension of Christ as the time when he assumed the throne of his father David in fulfillment of 2 Samuel 7:12–16.
How then can this prophecy refer to Jesus as God’s son and yet say that he will sin? The solution lies in the fact that the word “seed” or “offspring” in verse 12 (“I will raise up your offspring after you”) is collective and not individual. It does not refer to one person only, but to a lineage or a house. This is probably why Luke says in 2:4 that Joseph was “of the house and lineage of David.” When God says in 2 Samuel 7:13, “He shall build a house for my name and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever,” he means that Solomon, his own son will build the temple and that Solomon’s throne will endure forever, not because he will but because there will always be a descendant of his with the right to rule in Israel. We know this is what it means because the very same words are used in Verse 16 about David, “Your throne shall be established forever,” even though he will die.
Therefore when God promises to be a father to the seed of David who will sit on his throne, he means that he will chastise the bad kings in David’s line, but will never completely withdraw his love from this lineage. There is a beautiful exposition of this truth in Psalm 89:28–37. Let’s look at this. The psalmist is Ethan the Ezrahite, and he is exulting here in the promises to David.
My steadfast love I will keep for him forever, and my covenant will stand firm for him. I will establish his line forever and his throne as the days of the heavens. If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my ordinances, if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments, then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with scourges; but I will not remove from him my steadfast love, or be false to my faithfulness. I will not violate my covenant, or alter the word that went forth from my lips. Once for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David. His line shall endure forever, his throne as long as the sun before me. Like the moon it shall be established forever; it shall stand firm while the skies endure.
Therefore, neither 2 Samuel 7 nor Psalm 89 makes it explicit that someday a son of David would arise who himself would endure forever. But the hope is probably implicit and later prophecy brought it out clearly. For example Isaiah 9:6–7, “For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder . . . And of the increase of his government and of his peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over his kingdom to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.” So by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, it had become clear that the way God would fulfill the promise to David was to finally raise up a son of David who unlike all the others was not a sinner who needed to be chastised, but who was holy and just and who would live forever.
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2) So Solomon and his descendants partially fulfill the promise of 2 Samuel 7:12–16, but Jesus is the final and ultimate fulfillment. His divine sonship is like theirs in that he is a king and will enjoy God’s fatherly care. But just as Jesus is unique as the final, eternal seed of David, so also is his divine sonship unique. This is proved by verse 35. “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.'”
All the other descendants of David were called sons of God because they belonged to David’s line. Their earthly relations qualified them to be sons in the sense of 2 Samuel 7:14. It was the reverse with Jesus. His divine sonship qualified him to be the final fulfillment of David’s line. This is why the declaration of his sonship in verse 32 precedes the declaration of his Davidic kingship. He is not Son of God because he is King. He is King because he is Son of God. Therefore, his sonship is not like the sonship of David or Solomon or any other man. He is uniquely the Son of God, in a way no one before or since can aspire to.
The way God chose to demonstrate the incomprehensible character of Jesus’ sonship was through the virgin birth. Mary and Joseph had no sexual relations until after Jesus was born, Matthew tells us (1:25). Instead of this normal means of conception the Holy Spirit came upon her and the power of the Most High overshadowed her and the greatest event in the history of mankind began—the incarnation of God, the appearance of the God-Man. Jesus is the Son of God not just because he is a descendant of David, or because God chose him for a mission, or because he is morally pure like God is. Jesus is God’s Son because he was begotten by God. Not just his role and function and character come from God, but his Being is of God. His nature is God’s nature. As C. S. Lewis says, “When you beget, you beget something of the same kind as yourself. A man begets human babies, a beaver begets little beavers, and a bird begets eggs which turn into little birds” (Beyond Personality, 1948, p. 5). And by analogy then when God begets or fathers Jesus, he begets God. As Paul says in Colossians 2:9, “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.”
There are many scholars who want to keep the divine sonship of Jesus separated from his virgin birth. And it is, of course, possible to believe in Jesus’ divine sonship without believing in the virgin birth. But anything is possible to believe. The question is what is biblical and accounts for most of the facts. For Luke, or at least for Gabriel, the divine sonship is inseparable from the virgin birth. In fact, Gabriel says that Jesus’ unique sonship results from the fatherly agency of the Holy Spirit in the conception of Jesus: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you . . . therefore the child to be born will be called . . . the Son of God” (verse 35). Luke’s answer to the question why Jesus is the Son of God would be: Because God not Joseph was his only father, whose nature he shares.
There is just one added implication of this amazing truth that I want to stress for our faith. We have seen that Jesus is going to be great, indeed, the greatest man that ever lived and greater than all angels. And we have seen that he is the ultimate fulfillment of the promise to David in 2 Samuel 7:12–16 and that he will therefore “rule over the house of Jacob.” He will be the Messiah, the king of Israel. The last thing to stress is that “He will reign forever . . . of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33).
No end! At the ascension of Jesus Christ to the right hand of the Father, he took his seat as the God-Man on the throne of the universe and he will reign forever and ever and ever. He is now untouchable; absolutely nothing can threaten his rule. Death is behind him and an unending future of glory and peace and joy with all his people stretches out before him. What an incentive to press on with Christ! If you have an occasion tomorrow to tell someone the reason for your hope, tell them this: Jesus Christ is the Son of God and he will reign with all those who trust him forever and ever and ever. Amen.
Taken from www.desiringgod.org. Used by permission.