October, 2015

The Apostles’ Creed: Born of the Virgin Mary

When I worked with college students at the University of Kentucky I was approached by a campus minister about bringing in a big name speaker for an event. This speaker was one of the best known pastors in America. His books were bestsellers. He is engaging, entertaining, compelling, and charming. But I passed on being a part of the event. I passed because the speaker was Rob Bell.

What was it that made me nervous about aligning with Bell at the height of his popularity? In his book Velvet Elvis, Bell never personally denies the virgin birth but he argues that Christianity would be just fine without it. When I told my fellow campus minister my concerns, he responded, “Whoa, you can’t be that concerned about the virgin birth.” I strongly disagreed with my friend and decided not participate in the event.

While remaining very popular with many evangelicals, Bell has left his church to pursue other opportunities. He published a book denying Hell and advocating a universalism in which everyone is eventually justified before God simply by dying. He has rejected the historic and orthodox norms known as Christianity. He made good on everything he hinted at in Velvet Elvis.

While the virgin birth is not the only doctrine, the erosion of this one doctrine clears the way for acceptance of other heterodox beliefs. This leaves us with an important question: Is the virgin birth essential? The short answer is, “Yes.” The Bible declares that our understanding of atonement depends on it. I would argue that makes it essential. This is good news for us today because if it is true, then we can rest in the promise of Immanuel, “God with us.”

The Bible declares the virgin birth. Both Matthew and Luke’s accounts of the birth of Christ refer to the virgin birth. The question is often raised, “Is this what the text is really saying? Couldn’t those words mean something else?” Luke records Mary’s response to the angel’s announcement that she will give birth, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk 1:34, ESV). Scholars are right, the words translated in the ESV as “virgin” don’t really mean “virgin.” In fact, the Greek text doesn’t even have the word “virgin” in that verse. The defenders of orthodoxy have been caught red-handed switching words! The text actually reads, “since I know no man.” Ok, maybe the use of virgin is not so much of a stretch. Critics will need to look elsewhere.

Matthew’s account seems to be more problematic to the skeptic. It references a prophecy in Isaiah, “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is 7:14, ESV). Scholars have pointed out that the Hebrew word used here is almah. This word does not necessarily mean “virgin.” It could mean a young girl or a maiden. Some argue that had Isaiah meant to refer to one who is a virgin, he would have used the word betulah. But this wouldn’t conclusively solve the problem. The word betulah is used in Joel 1:8 to refer to a young woman who has lost the husband of her youth. That usage would imply that the word could refer to someone who is sexually experienced. The word almah, however, is never used in Scripture to indicate anyone other than a virgin. Additionally, the translators of the Septuaguint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) chose to translate almah with the Greek word parthenos, which does mean “virgin.” And this work was done 300 years before Christ was born, so a bias toward a virgin birth cannot be claimed. So, Scripture clearly affirms the reality of a virgin birth.

But does Scripture’s affirmation of a virgin birth make this doctrine essential for atonement? It does for two reasons. First, it is necessary because we believe that Scripture is true in all that it states. So if it is wrong about the virgin birth, how can we be sure it isn’t wrong about our salvation? We cannot simply pick and choose which portions of Scripture we want to believe. That doesn’t demonstrate a belief in the authority and sovereignty of the Almighty God who far surpasses our capacity to understand as much as it demonstrates a belief in our own intellect and ego. Rejecting the doctrine on these grounds is tantamount to declaring oneself to be God.

Second, it is necessary because we needed a Savior who was fully God and fully man. Jesus had to be human to be able to represent us before the Father (Heb 4:15). He had to be without blemish to be worthy to make sacrifice for us (Heb 7:27). But no one born of ordinary generation is without the curse of original sin (Eph 2:3, Rom 5:12, WCF VI.3). So Jesus had to be born in a supernatural process, i.e. the virgin birth.

The virgin birth was also essential because it was a demonstration of the union between God and man. God assumed the very thing which needed to be healed. He was God and man united in one person. He is fully God to be able to atone for our sins. He is fully man to be the firstfruits of that glorious atonement. He was conceived supernaturally in the womb of the virgin by the same Holy Spirit that worked to resurrect his body from the grave. This is the same power that is with us today. God with us, Immanuel. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God is with us.

The Apostles’ Creed: Conceived by the Holy Spirit

The bulk of the Apostles’ Creed explains some particulars about the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is appropriate because the greatest concerns and issues in the early Church related to Christology, that is, the understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ. It remains an absolutely crucial doctrine for us to understand. What we believe about who Jesus is and what he has done will radically and drastically affect what the Christian faith means.

When it comes to the particulars of the life of Jesus, the Creed expresses that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit.” This particular affirmation is the beginning of the Creed’s explanation of how Jesus fulfilled the promise of God for a Redeemer. And it affirms that Jesus lived his whole life, indeed from his very conception, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Scriptures had long promised a Redeemer. All of the sacrifices and offerings made by the priests pointed to the fact that God would be with his people. “I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them” (Ex 29:45, 46). God promised to be in their midst not simply in an ethereal, unseen manner, but in a real and bodily manner. “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I dwell in your midst, declares the LORD” (Zech 2:10). John says that Jesus fulfilled this, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The term John uses is that Jesus “tabernacled” among us. It recalls the promise of Moses in the Exodus passage, that God’s presence, the Shekinah glory, would dwell among us as it dwelt in the tabernacle of old. The Redeemer would come and he would be bodily present with and seen with real eyes by his people. “The voice of your watchmen – they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the LORD to Zion” (Is 52:8). The plan from eternity past, formulated among the three persons of the Godhead, was that the Son, the Second person of the Trinity, would humble himself in the Incarnation and become “Immanuel,” that is, God with us.

In the Incarnation, the Son would really and truly become man. This was not merely in appearance, but in reality. The Son had a real body and soul. He hungered and thirsted. He experienced sorrow and pain. He grew and matured as all people do. But he was also really and truly God. The Incarnation was not through a change of the Divine into human. God does not change (James 1:17). The human and divine natures in the Incarnation were not mingled and mixed into one. The Incarnation was not a creation of human nature out of nothing or a body descending from the heavens. That kind of human being would not be like our own. Nor was the Incarnation just the mystical appearance of God. Rather, it was accomplished by “the assumption of the human nature into the individual unity of the Divine person.”[1] The “Word became flesh” (John 1:14). And this was effected through the conception of the Holy Spirit. As Herman Bavinck summarized, “To obtain the result that the eternal Son of God would simultaneously be the Son of David, a human being descended from human beings, like us in all things, sin excepted, it was necessary for him to be supernaturally conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary.”[2] Bavinck continued stating that the Holy Spirit’s conception is “intimately tied” to the divinity of Christ, his sinlessness, and eternal preexistence. This is no small issue.

The role of the Holy Spirit did not end at conception. The human nature of Christ, throughout his entire life, was lived fully in the power of the Holy Spirit. No one can have communion with God apart form the Holy Spirit. This also applies to Christ’s human nature as well. The Holy Spirit anointed the Messiah (Is 61:1). Christ received the Spirit without measure (John 3:34). Jesus was filled with the Spirit (Luke 4:1, 18). The Spirit gave him power (Matt 12:18). It was through the Spirit that Jesus offered himself to God without blemish (Heb 9:14). And it was according to the Spirit that he was declared the Son of God in power (Rom 1:4). “Put in this context, the conception by Holy Spirit becomes abundantly meaningful. In terms of his human nature, from the very first moment, through his entire life right into the state of exaltation, Jesus had to be shaped into the Messiah, the Christ, Son of God Most High.”[3]

The encouraging part for Christians today is that this is the same Holy Spirit that the Father and Son have sent to indwell believers today (John 14:15-31). The ordinary Christian today can do remarkable things because the same Holy Spirit that indwelt Christ’s human nature indwells you.

 

[1] Herman Witsius, Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed, 2 Vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 2.9.

[2] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Baker Academic, 2008), 3.290.

[3] Ibid., 3.293.

The Apostles’ Creed: Jesus, Our Lord

Around the middle of the 2nd century, Polycarp of Smyrna was martyred. He was arrested, bound, burned at the stake, and then stabbed when the fire failed to harm him. Polycarp was sentenced to death because he would not swear that Caesar is Lord. His refusal dumbfounded the Roman Proconsul, “What is the harm in saying ‘Caesar is lord’?” But Polycarp knew to claim Caesar as Lord would be to blaspheme Jesus. “Eighty-six years have I served him and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” Polycarp believed the ancient and simple creed, “Jesus is Lord.” He also knew that “no one can serve two masters” (Matt 6:24). So on pain of death he refused to acknowledge that Caesar is Lord.

The use of the title “Lord” was understood in Egyptian, Persian, Ethiopian, Hellenistic, Roman, and many other contexts to mean a person of divine authority and power who is worthy of obedience and worship. The German scholar Adolf Deissmann notes, “It may be said with certainty that at the time when Christianity originated ‘Lord’ was a divine predicate intelligible to the whole Eastern world.”[1] In fact, the use of Jesus as “Lord” was seen as a protest against the popular and common designation of Caesar as “Lord.”[2]

The Apostles’ Creed affirms that Jesus is “our Lord.” What does it mean to call Jesus “Lord”? Herman Witsius defines Lord as, “a person having authority and power over anything, in whatever manner it is acquired.”[3] The Biblical record unequivocally says that Jesus is Lord because Jesus has supreme authority and power over all things. He can claim this authority as both God and Mediator.

Jesus has authority as God. Jesus is fully God and possess in himself “the whole excellence of Deity, which is the root and foundation of Divine dominion.”[4] In his being, Jesus has the same authority and power as the Father because Jesus and the Father are one (Jn 10:30). “All things were made through [Jesus], and without him was not anything made that was made” (Jn 1:3, cf. 1 Cor 8:6, Col 1:15-20). All of creation submits to his authority because he is Lord (Lk 8:25).

Jesus has authority as Mediator. The role of Mediator was given to Jesus by the Father. God the Father has called his elect to himself and given them to the Son. Jesus can speak of all believers as “my sheep” because they have been appointed to him. Jesus rightly has authority over his people because he has purchased them. “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:19, 20). The price has been paid and ownership transferred. “From the time when Christ gave his own blood for them as the real price for their redemption, he was constituted the sovereign Lord of all the elect.”[5] And now Jesus sits enthroned at the right hand of the Father “ruling and defending us, and restraining and conquering all his and our enemies” as our King (WSC 26).

Jesus as our Lord is a source of consolation for believers. When Queen Sheba visited with Solomon, she told him of the reports she had heard of his rule. “Happy are your men! Happy are your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom!” (1 Kings 10:8). How much happier should the Christian be since he is under an infallible and infinitely wise ruler? The Christian is no longer a slave to sin or under the tyranny of the devil. Instead he is honored to serve Christ, in whom is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Ps 16:11).

Jesus as our Lord is also reason to obey his commandments. It is only when we submit to God’s will in place of our own that Jesus’ lordship is more than mere lip-service. Witsius quotes the early Church Father Tertullian who said, “we ought to obey not merely because it is good, but because it is the command of God. The Majesty of Divine authority should operate as the chief inducement to obedience.” He also quotes Chrysostom, “When God commands, it is not our part to inquire curiously into the nature of things prescribed, but merely to obey.”[6]

Jesus as our Lord is a call to a personal relationship. Jesus is not merely THE Lord but he is OUR Lord. The personal pronouns set the God of Scripture apart from all other gods. This covenantal relationship must be personally entered into. Jesus warned that not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord,” will enter into the kingdom. It is not enough to call him “Lord” if you don’t have a personal relationship with him (Matt 7:21-23).

Polycarp would submit to none other than Jesus as Lord. The early Church staked its identity to the creed, “Jesus is Lord.” The Apostles’ Creed affirms that Jesus is “our Lord.” And we ought to stand in this long line of faithful believers by declaring that Jesus is our Lord.

[1] Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1965), 350.

[2] Ibid., 355.

[3] Herman Witsius, Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed, 2 Vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 351.

[4] Ibid., 354.

[5] Ibid., 355–356.

[6] Ibid., 365.

The Apostles’ Creed: Jesus, Our Lord

Around the middle of the 2nd century, Polycarp of Smyrna was martyred. He was arrested, bound, burned at the stake, and then stabbed when the fire failed to harm him. Polycarp was sentenced to death because he would not swear that Caesar is Lord. His refusal dumbfounded the Roman Proconsul, “What is the harm in saying ‘Caesar is lord’?” But Polycarp knew to claim Caesar as Lord would be to blaspheme Jesus. “Eighty-six years have I served him and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” Polycarp believed the ancient and simple creed, “Jesus is Lord.” He also knew that “no one can serve two masters” (Matt 6:24). So on pain of death he refused to acknowledge that Caesar is Lord.

The use of the title “Lord” was understood in Egyptian, Persian, Ethiopian, Hellenistic, Roman, and many other contexts to mean a person of divine authority and power who is worthy of obedience and worship. The German scholar Adolf Deissmann notes, “It may be said with certainty that at the time when Christianity originated ‘Lord’ was a divine predicate intelligible to the whole Eastern world.”[1] In fact, the use of Jesus as “Lord” was seen as a protest against the popular and common designation of Caesar as “Lord.”[2]

The Apostles’ Creed affirms that Jesus is “our Lord.” What does it mean to call Jesus “Lord”? Herman Witsius defines Lord as, “a person having authority and power over anything, in whatever manner it is acquired.”[3] The Biblical record unequivocally says that Jesus is Lord because Jesus has supreme authority and power over all things. He can claim this authority as both God and Mediator.

Jesus has authority as God. Jesus is fully God and possess in himself “the whole excellence of Deity, which is the root and foundation of Divine dominion.”[4] In his being, Jesus has the same authority and power as the Father because Jesus and the Father are one (Jn 10:30). “All things were made through [Jesus], and without him was not anything made that was made” (Jn 1:3, cf. 1 Cor 8:6, Col 1:15-20). All of creation submits to his authority because he is Lord (Lk 8:25).

Jesus has authority as Mediator. The role of Mediator was given to Jesus by the Father. God the Father has called his elect to himself and given them to the Son. Jesus can speak of all believers as “my sheep” because they have been appointed to him. Jesus rightly has authority over his people because he has purchased them. “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:19, 20). The price has been paid and ownership transferred. “From the time when Christ gave his own blood for them as the real price for their redemption, he was constituted the sovereign Lord of all the elect.”[5] And now Jesus sits enthroned at the right hand of the Father “ruling and defending us, and restraining and conquering all his and our enemies” as our King (WSC 26).

Jesus as our Lord is a source of consolation for believers. When Queen Sheba visited with Solomon, she told him of the reports she had heard of his rule. “Happy are your men! Happy are your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom!” (1 Kings 10:8). How much happier should the Christian be since he is under an infallible and infinitely wise ruler? The Christian is no longer a slave to sin or under the tyranny of the devil. Instead he is honored to serve Christ, in whom is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Ps 16:11).

Jesus as our Lord is also reason to obey his commandments. It is only when we submit to God’s will in place of our own that Jesus’ lordship is more than mere lip-service. Witsius quotes the early Church Father Tertullian who said, “we ought to obey not merely because it is good, but because it is the command of God. The Majesty of Divine authority should operate as the chief inducement to obedience.” He also quotes Chrysostom, “When God commands, it is not our part to inquire curiously into the nature of things prescribed, but merely to obey.”[6]

Jesus as our Lord is a call to a personal relationship. Jesus is not merely THE Lord but he is OUR Lord. The personal pronouns set the God of Scripture apart from all other gods. This covenantal relationship must be personally entered into. Jesus warned that not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord,” will enter into the kingdom. It is not enough to call him “Lord” if you don’t have a personal relationship with him (Matt 7:21-23).

Polycarp would submit to none other than Jesus as Lord. The early Church staked its identity to the creed, “Jesus is Lord.” The Apostles’ Creed affirms that Jesus is “our Lord.” And we ought to stand in this long line of faithful believers by declaring that Jesus is our Lord.

[1] Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1965), 350.

[2] Ibid., 355.

[3] Herman Witsius, Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed, 2 Vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 351.

[4] Ibid., 354.

[5] Ibid., 355–356.

[6] Ibid., 365.