Mary and Joseph’s Test of Faith
“Are you kidding me? If so, it’s a really bad joke!” One can only imagine the conversation Mary and Joseph had when she returned from Judea. She had been gone for three months, rather odd behavior just after a betrothal. But Mary was going to have to say something sometime and that time was now. Joseph couldn’t believe it. How could he? Never in the history of the world had a woman conceived without lying with a male. Even the pagans couldn’t conceive of such a thing, the gods copulating with women to produce offspring in their wretched myths. Joseph must have been crushed. Here was his betrothed wife proving faithless even before their wedding day! And what was he to do about it? Their nuptials were just around the corner. Was he to go on with the marriage? Was he to pretend nothing ever happened? Could he be the father of another’s man’s child? Would he not always look upon the child with intense pain? Could he possibly love the child? Could he now love Mary? And what was he to do with Mary? Should he expose her shame? Was there any way to divorce her (for a betrothal required a divorce) without holding her up to universal contempt?
And what about Mary? Things were looking very bleak and dark for her. Scripture doesn’t reveal to us what was transpiring in her mind. I know Mary was of holier stuff than I shall ever be, but I still have to believe that this was a very frightening time for her: humiliation, public scorn, family reputation besmirched—and what about the baby? But God has concerns above our personal reputations, and He’s quite content when we are humiliated. His chief concerns are His glory and His people’s salvation—and everything else is completely subservient to those ends. And that’s why He said that we must take up the cross, and that if we love anyone or anything more than Him, we cannot be his disciples (Matthew 10:37; Luke 14:27). And so here we have a perfectly human predicament in the midst of a perfect work of God.
So Joseph, being a just man, would divorce her quietly and send her away. It had to be agonizing—the anguished look on her face in his disbelief of her story and moral purity. But as happens in such cases, God showed Joseph the truth. He too had been chosen, and he would name the child, Jesus, as the angel had directed Mary. God uses holy instruments to fulfill His will, and then He puts them to the test. May we be such holy instruments and may we be as faithful as Mary and Joseph when tested–and we will be tested.
The Virginal Conception
I cannot speak of these last two passages of Scripture without speaking of this profound truth of the Christian faith—often called the “Virgin Birth.” I once heard a theology professor say that this doctrine speaks to how Christ is different from us. Well, that’s putting it rather mildly; it says more than that. The doctrine of the virgin birth (“virginal conception,” is a more precise rendering) speaks to both our Lord’s divine and human natures.
First, his divine nature. According to the Trinitarian theology taught throughout the New Testament, we must understand that in the fullness of time, the Second Person of the Triune God–the Son–came down from heaven and assumed (that is, took upon himself) the human nature and body that was prepared in Mary’s womb through the action of the Holy Spirit within her (Luke 1:35-36; Hebrews 10:5; Psalm 40:6-8). This is why he was and is called the Son of God–because He was begotten from all eternity by his Father, BUT came down at a specific time in human history to be born of woman (Luke 2:1ff: during the reign of Caesar Augustus; when Quirinius was governor of Syria; Matthew 2:1ff: when Herod was king over Judea and surrounding territories; Galatians 4:4: born of woman).
Second, his human nature. Mary is Jesus’ real mother; he was born of her body. So he was and is a real human being even now at the Father’s right hand. Furthermore, this virginal conception protected Jesus from inheriting a sinful nature. The fact is that not only did Jesus live a sinless life (Hebrews 4:14), but that he was conceived and born without a sin nature. This is very important. We say that we are sinners both by nature and by choice; indeed, we are sinners by choice because we are sinners by nature inherited from our first parents. But though Jesus was fully human, he lacked this taint of nature with which we are born. One might ask, “Then how is he fully human like us?” We answer: The fact that he was born with no taint of sin speaks to his being fully human. Our sin nature is the depravation of our humanity; he is the one who is fully human while we are less so—much less so. Someone might ask, “Well, what about Mary? Didn’t she have a sin nature? Wasn’t he her biological son?” Yes, but we can only say that through the superintendence of the Holy Spirit, our Lord was protected from inheriting such a sinful nature from her, such that the child born to her was called “holy–the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Moreover, we do not mean “inherit” as if we receive our sin nature directly from our parents, as if to say that if Dad is an adulterer, then my chances of being one are increased, as if by genetics (although it is certain that we inherit weaknesses and infirmities from our parents which are due to our having such a nature). We sinned in Adam and so are sinners by nature; had Adam not sinned, we would not have a sin nature. In this sense, we “inherit” this sinful nature in and from our primal parents (Romans 5:12-14).
So the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is not about genetics. We don’t need a doctrine of Mary’s “immaculate conception” to deal with a problem that does not exist and is unbiblical, anyway. The point is that he was like us in every way, yet without sin, without a sin nature. Yes, he was tempted as we are, but his temptations came from outside himself, not from within himself, as much of ours do. So in this sense, he was like the first Adam who was without a sinful nature—until he fell; Christ is the “last Adam” who conquered sin—and was “a life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45). But then there is still that difference: “The first man was from earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:47).
To sum, he has to be God to save us and sinless man to take our place—and the doctrine of the virgin birth expresses both the reality of the event and the truth of the doctrine. Behold, the Lamb of God.