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1. The Incarnation of the Son of God

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[Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a series on the general subject, “The Person of Christ.” A previous series on Christ in the Old Testament, appearing in Bibliotheca Sacra (January-March, 1947, through January-March, 1949), forms a background for this study.]

The incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ is the central fact of Christianity. Upon it the whole superstructure of Christian theology depends. Probably no portion of Scripture has received more intense examination, more scholarly research, and more theological debate than the four Gospels as they unfold the birth and life of the Lord Jesus Christ. The interpretation of the Biblical revelation of the four Gospels inevitably lays down the guiding lines for all other interpretation.

The central character of the Scriptural presentation of the incarnation of the Son of God has been recognized by all branches of theology. Those attempting to sustain the thesis that Jesus was only a man have lost no time in questioning the facts as presented in the Bible, in denying the virgin birth of Christ, and a few have gone so far as to deny the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth because of the scarcity of extra-Scriptural literature dealing with the facts of the birth of Christ. Special attention necessarily has been directed to the Scriptural narratives.

Warfield gives a masterful summary of the small amount of reference to Christ outside the Scriptures: “The rise of Christianity was a phenomenon of too little apparent significance to attract the attention of the great world. It was only when it had refused to be quenched in the blood of its founder, and, breaking out of the narrow bounds of the obscure province in which it had its origin, was making itself felt in the centers of population, that it drew to itself a somewhat irritated notice. The interest of such heathen writers as mention it was in the movement, not in its author. But in speaking of the movement they tell something of its author, and what they tell is far from being of little moment. He was, it seems, a certain ‘Christ,’ who had lived in Judea in the reign of Tiberius (14-37 A.D.), and had been brought to capital punishment by the procurator, Pontius Pilate (q.v.; cf. Tacitus, ‘Annals,’ xv. 44). The significance of His personality to the movement inaugurated by Him is already suggested by the fact that He, and no other, had impressed His name upon it. But the name itself by which He was known particularly attracts notice. This is uniformly, in these heathen writers, ‘Christ,’not ‘Jesus.”1 Warfield mentions but questions the authenticity of the reference in Josephus to “Jesus” (Ant. XVIII, iii. 3, XX, ix. 1), but cites as authentic the references to Christ by Suetonius (“Claudius,” xxv.), and that of Tacitus and Pliny.2 As Warfield concludes, “Beyond these great facts the heathen historians give little information about the founder of Christianity.”3

The theological significance of the facts of the incarnation have undoubtedly been the main cause both of faith and unbelief. It is important therefore for the student of the incarnation to examine with care what the Bible actually teaches on this subject and then to ascertain whether that teaching is self-consistent and justifies the belief of orthodox scholars that this is indeed inspired and infallible Scripture. Though none of the four Gospels are especially written as an apologetic for the Christian faith, the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke present the historical facts according to the theme of each gospel. The Gospel of Matthew is especially concerned with the explanation that Jesus is indeed the King of Israel and the promised Messiah. Luke is concerned with the historical narrative, and the facts are presented with the purpose of establishing the certainty of the historical background of Christianity.

The Prophetic Forerunner of Christ

John the Baptist occupies the peculiar role of being a prophetic bridge from the Old Testament prophets to the New. Luke gives in detail the account of his birth as subject to special revelation to Zacharias his father. In the chronologies provided in the first chapter of Luke the Annunciation to Mary occurs three months before the birth of John the Baptist. The subsequent birth of Christ is therefore presented in the context of prophetic divine preparation that a great work of God is about to be consummated. John the Baptist later in his public ministry was also to be a forerunner of Christ in the sense of providing a spiritual preparation and warning to the people of Israel culminating in the baptism of Christ by John and the transfer of John’s disciples to the Lord Jesus. Apart from the denial of the supernatural, there is no bona fide reason for questioning the account given by Luke, substantiated as it is, by the historical events which followed.

The Annunciation to Mary

In the Gospel narratives only Luke records the Annunciation to Mary. With fitting restraint and simplicity Luke unfolds this dramatic incident which he may have heard from the lips of Mary herself.

The Annunciation is given the background of a similar announcement to Zacharias by an unknown angel. In the account of the Annunciation to Mary the Angel Gabriel is especially mentioned, an important angel earlier sent with a special revelation to Daniel the Prophet. His tidings to Mary were introduced by the fact that she was highly favored and had been chosen of the Lord for an unusual honor. She was to bring forth a Son whom she should call Jesus. This Son would be called the Son of the Most High and to Him the Lord God would give the throne of His father David and over the house of Jacob He would reign forever as there would be no end to His kingdom.

In answer to the natural question raised by Mary concerning how this should come about, since she was an unmarried woman, the angel replied: “The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: wherefore also the holy thing which is begotten shall be called the Son of God.” In these unmistakable terms Mary is informed that her Son would have no human father, but that He should be indeed the Son of God who would fulfill the promises given to David of a Son to reign over His house forever. In confirmation of this unusual promise and evidence of the supernatural power of God, Mary is informed that her kinswoman, Elizabeth, had also conceived a son in her old age as a demonstration of the power of God.

To these tidings Mary replies in devout submission: “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” The simplicity of this narrative, the avoidance of all extravagant details, and the very natural movement of the conversation between Mary and the angel testify to the genuineness of this portion of Scripture and lead to the theological conclusion that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. The Magnificat of Mary4 recorded in Luke 1:46-55 gives eloquent expression to the godly faith of Mary and provides some indication as to why God chose her for this unique honor.

The Annunciation to Joseph

It is in keeping with the purposes of the Gospel of Matthew that it, rather than Luke, should record the Annunciation to Joseph. In Matthew the narrative deals with the legal right of Christ to the throne of David. The Annunciation to Joseph apparently was subsequent to that of Mary, and the time interval between the two annunciations was undoubtedly a test of faith both to Mary and to Joseph. When Joseph became aware of the fact that Mary to whom he was betrothed was with child, though he was a righteous man as the Gospel of Matthew indicates, he was not willing to make his problem public, but intended to break the betrothal privately. As he contemplated this action it is recorded in Matthew 1:20 that an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. To Joseph the tidings were given: “Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” The angel goes on to explain: “And she shall bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name JESUS; for it is he that shall save his people from their sins.” The angel further points out to Joseph that this is a fulfillment of the prediction recorded in Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” In keeping with this instruction Joseph took to himself his wife, thereby avoiding any scandal that might attach to Mary and at the same time giving to the Son that was born the legal right to the throne of David.

The Birth of Jesus Christ

Though the Apostle Paul in his epistles gives frequent indication of knowing the details of the birth of Jesus Christ, only Matthew and Luke give us the precise account, Matthew dwelling upon the fact that Christ was born in Bethlehem and Luke tracing many of the lesser details. Here again, as in other aspects of the narrative, the simplicity of the account is one of the important testimonies to its authenticity.

Luke goes to great detail to date the birth of Christ, linking it with a decree that went out from Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria (cf. Luke 2:1-2). Because of this decree Joseph needed to go to Bethlehem to register and Mary accompanied him.

The account of the birth of Christ is given in only two sentences. Luke records: “And it came to pass, while they were there, the days were fulfilled that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her first-born son; and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” In utter contrast to the dignity of the Son of God and His ultimate glorification as King of kings and Lord of lords, the birth of Christ was in the rudest circumstances. Some have pictured it as being in one of the outer buildings of the inn used for cattle. Others have favored a cave nearby.5 The Scriptures indicate that He was laid in a manger, a rude improvised crib by the loving hands of Mary herself.6 His obscurity, however, was soon ended by the visitation of the angels to the shepherds in nearby fields. According to Luke’s account: “And an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.” Unto the shepherds the angel said: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people: for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this is the sign unto you: Ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.” As the angel delivered his message, suddenly, according to Luke’s account, a multitude of angels appeared in the heavens chanting: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased.” Under the stimulus of this dramatic experience the shepherds lost no time in coming to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph and the Babe lying in the manger.

The Infancy of Christ

Both the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew testify to some of the details of the early days of the incarnate Son of God upon the earth. The first event recorded after the visit of the angels was the observance of the rite of circumcision as stated in Luke 2:21 when He was named Jesus in keeping with the instruction of the angel to Mary before Christ was born and as Joseph also was commanded in the Annunciation to him in Matthew 1:21. On the occasion of the circumcision of Christ the instruction of the law concerning the offering was duly kept as provided in Leviticus 12:6. On this occasion the testimony of Simeon was given as he blessed God and said: “Now lettest thou thy servant depart, Lord, according to thy word, in peace; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples; a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:28-32). On that occasion also Simeon predicted to Mary: “Behold, this child is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel; and for a sign which is spoken against; yea and a sword shall pierce through thine own soul; that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). To Simeon’s testimony was added that of Anna the Prophetess who gave her word of thanksgiving to God concerning this provision for the redemption of His people.

It is probable that the visit of the Magi from the East as recorded in Matthew 2:1-12 occurred sometime later and not as commonly believed at the time of the birth of Christ. The chronology demanded by the time interval made necessary by the trip of the Magi after they had seen the star appear would point to the passage of a number of months. Matthew records their dramatic appearance in Jerusalem demanding where the King of the Jews was to be born. When Herod inquired of the chief priests and the scribes, he was told that in Bethlehem the King of the Jews would be born. Herod therefore told the Magi to find the child and to return to bring him word that he might come and worship Him. Herod intended of course to kill the child as soon as he could identify Him. The star, reappearing according to Matthew 2:9, led the Magi to Bethlehem where they found the child with Mary His mother now in a house. This was apparently on a subsequent visit to Bethlehem from Nazareth a number of months after the birth of Christ. To the child they offered their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh and worshipped Him in recognition of His deity. Meanwhile, warned by a dream, the Magi returned to their land without reporting to Herod, and Joseph, following instructions also from the Lord, fled to Egypt to avoid the destroying hatred of Herod. The prophecy of Hosea 11:1, partially fulfilled by the redemption of Israel out of Egypt, is cited by Matthew as having its complete fulfillment in Christ. Later when it was safe after the death of Herod, Joseph and Mary and young Jesus returned to Nazareth where He spent His childhood.

Critical Problems

Though there have been many attempts to weaken the credibility of the accounts of the birth of Christ, there has been little documentary evidence to support this attitude of unbelief. The Biblical accounts themselves, presented in a straight forward manner without the embellishment that would have occurred in a fictitious account, give the simple and historical facts pertaining to the birth of Christ. No attempt is made to provide an apologetic for these facts. Those who received the Gospels when they were first written had little ground to question the approach of Luke as a careful investigator, and the meticulous precision of his presentation is its own assurance that the records are true. and the Old Testament. In Genesis 11:12 there is an omission of Cainan, recorded in Luke 3:36. Omissions in genealogy are common, however, as illustrated in the Old Testament omissions found in Ezra 7:1-5 where six generations of the priesthood are left out. It should be clear that genealogies are not necessarily complete, the main point being legitimate descent rather than inclusion of all the links in the genealogy.

The principal problem of Luke’s genealogy, however, is that an entirely different lineage is presented from David to Joseph, the descent coming from Nathan the son of David rather than through Solomon as in Matthew’s account. The most common explanation of this seems to be the best, i.e., that Joseph as the son-in-law of Eli was considered in the descent from Eli through his marriage with Mary and that the lineage therefore is that of Mary rather than of Joseph.8

This at least fits in beautifully with the Old Testament predictions given through Jeremiah (cf. Jer 22:30; 36:30 ) to the effect that the line of Coniah would never have a man to sit upon the throne. Though the legal right to the throne passed from Christ through Joseph as his legal father, the actual physical lineage could not come through Joseph because of this curse upon his line. The account of Luke therefore is to trace the physical lineage of Christ through Mary back to Adam the first man, connecting Christ to the predicted seed of the woman. Though there has been opposition to this interpretation, the arguments for it far outweigh the arguments against it and give a reasonable explanation why there should be two lineages from David to Christ.

One of the most important controversies relative to the birth of Christ has been because of the presentation of the Scriptures that He is born of a virgin. This has been opposed as both unnatural and as unlikely, and therefore an invention rather than a solid historical fact. It might be granted that if the person and work of Christ had been that of an ordinary prophet there might be good grounds to question His virgin birth. The whole tenor of Scripture as presented in both the Old Testament prophecies that He was to be God and man and the New Testament fulfillment make the virgin birth a divine explanation in so far as it can be explained of an otherwise insuperable problem. How could one who was both God and man have perfectly human parents? The account of the virgin birth therefore, instead of being an unreasonable invention, becomes a fitting explanation of how in the supernatural power of God the incarnation was made a reality.

Much of the discussion on the virgin birth takes for granted that it is possible to ignore the carefully worded record of Scripture. It should be noted that not only does Luke give us a very specific account which states in plain language that Christ was born of a virgin, but the account of Matthew written by a different author and from a different point of view confirms this explanation. Throughout the rest of the New Testament there is constant assumption that Christ is indeed the very Son of God and that He was born of a woman but not a man. This is the teaching of Paul in Galatians 4:4 as well as the prophetic record of the book of Revelation 12:1-2. The sign promised through Isaiah 7:14 of a virgin bearing a son to be called Immanuel and the description of this child as One who bears the title Mighty God in Isaiah 9:6 add additional confirming evidence. If the supernatural power of God to perform such an act as this be admitted, there is no logical reason for not accepting the plain intent of the Scriptural portions bearing on this great theme. The wisest of scholars as well as the most simple of humble believers have bowed alike at the manger in Bethlehem and acknowledged that the infant, born of the virgin and laid in swaddling clothes, is their Lord and Savior in whom is resident all the attributes of the infinite God.

This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.

1 B. B. Warfield, The Person and Work of Christ, p. 5.

2 Ibid., p. 5-6.

3 Ibid., p. 6.

4 Cf. John V. G. Koontz, “Mary’s Magnificat,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 116:336-49, October-December, 1959.

5 Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, A Commentary, Critical, Experimental, and Practical on the Old and New Testament (1866), V, 225.

6 Alexander Bruce, The Expositors Greek New Testament, W. R. Nicoll, ed., I, 472.

8 Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, ibid., V, 235-36.

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