And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35).
There are no more powerful words than these for Christmas. This is as close as we come to a description of how “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). We can all identify with Mary’s question, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34). We may even beg the question here, or actually two questions: how did God become fully human and remain fully God; and how, if that happened, did He remain sinless? I say beg the question because we know He did both of those! He did become fully man and He did remain the sinless Son of God. Without both of those things being true, the substitution of Jesus Christ for our sins could not have taken place. If He did not fully become a man He could not identify with the fallen race of Adam and become its Redeemer. If He did not remain sinless He would have to die for His own sins, not ours. “How shall this be?”
We know before we approach this verse that Jesus Christ was sinless. Charles Ryrie writes,
Our Lord was announced as a holy child (Luke 1:35). He challenged His enemies to show that He was a sinner which they could not do (John 8:46). They failed in their attempts to trap Him by using something He said (Matt. 22:15). During the trials and Crucifixion He was acknowledged as innocent eleven times (by Judas, Matt. 27:4; by Pilate six times, 27:24; Luke 23:14; John 18:38; 19:4, 6; by Herod Antipas, Luke 23:15; by Pilate’s wife, Matt. 27:19; by the repentant thief, Luke 23:41; and by the Roman centurion, Matt 27:54). Furthermore, there is no record of our Lord ever offering a single sacrifice, though He frequented the temple. This silence speaks of the fact that He did not need to since He was without sin.1
We know also that Jesus Christ was fully human. Rolland McCune writes,
For instance, Jesus refers to himself as a man (John 8:40). Peter announces that Jesus of Nazareth was ‘a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs’ (Acts 2:22). Paul similarly asserts, ‘The free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many’ (Rom. 5:15). In another place, Paul says, ‘By a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead’ (1 Cor. 15:21; cf. Heb 2:14). Later he says that ‘there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’ (1 Tim. 2:5-6). Additionally, references to Jesus’ Davidic descent further point to Jesus’ humanity (cf. Matt. 1:1; Acts 2:30; Rom. 1:3), as does reference to His Jewish lineage (Rom. 9:5).2
And so, again, letting Scripture speak for itself, before we approach Gabriel’s explanation in order to answer Mary’s (and our) question, we know that the divine method of virgin birth will produce a God-man, the theanthropic person, a hypostatic union between God and man. One person, Jesus Christ, with two natures divine and human. We also know the virgin birth will produce the sinless Son of God, “that holy thing” called “the Son of God.” But, “How shall this thing be?”
Two extremes must be discarded before any sense can be made of it. One, we must not exalt Mary beyond what she was, a sinner saved by grace. And, two, we must not make the miracle less than it was, a divine intervention into the natural birth process.
“Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this thing be, seeing I know not a man” (Luke 1:34). G. Campbell Morgan beautifully responds,
I have seen that question translated differently in the interest of softness, and what is falsely called delicacy: ‘How can this be, seeing that I am an unmarried woman?’ I hate this kind of false delicacy. Leave the question as it is. It is the cold, scientific, biological difficulty, bluntly stated. It is the question being debated hotly today. It is at least interesting, then, to observe that according to the historic record, the first person to raise the difficulty was Mary herself.3
Mary’s sinful humanity
That Mary was sinful is left without question in the text. “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47). Some have tried to get around this difficulty by posing that Mary’s sinful nature was enough to make Jesus sinful even with a virgin birth and therefore Jesus was a separate creation within but apart from Mary’s humanity. But this would detach Jesus from any real humanity.
The Catholic Church tries to solve this problem by claiming that Jesus was sinless because Mary was sinless. This doctrine is called the immaculate conception, not of Jesus but of Mary! Of course this only puts the problem back a generation: How, then, did Mary remain sinless? They are not claiming a virgin birth for Mary, only a sinless human conception (Give me the problem of a virgin birth over that). The Catholic Catechism quotes Pope Pius IX from 1854, “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.”4
They claim that Gabriel said, “Hail, Mary, full of grace” (Luke 1:28) by which they claim Mary was, “redeemed from the moment of her conception.”5 Actually, of course, he said nothing of the kind. “Highly favored” is a beautiful translation of the greeting. Many margins have simply, “much graced,” or “having been graced.” The Catholic doctrine goes on to make Mary the mother of all and who, through the Church, brings “virginal” grace to all through baptism.
Christ the sinless God-Man
We know both that Mary was sinful and that Jesus was sinless. Gabriel said, “Therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” John wrote, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The Word (Logos) is the eternal second person of the God-Head, eternal, fully God, perfect, and sinless. He never was tainted with sin and never could be whether in eternity past, in His incarnation, or in eternity future. This Word “became” flesh, that is, His fleshly humanity started at this miraculous conception and will continue for all eternity as the God-man, Jesus the Christ.
Charles Wesley said it most famously when he wrote,
Christ, by highest heaven adored;
Christ, the Everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of the Virgin’s womb:
Veiled in flesh the God-head see;
Hail the Incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King.”
The virgin birth
The problem of a miraculous, supernatural birth is solved by the fact that “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee.” Those who doubt the validity of Biblical miracles simply doubt God. “Anyone who affirms that a virgin birth is impossible, is just confessing his or her own unbelief in the God of the Bible.”6 “Overshadow” (episkiazo) means to envelop in darkness. It is the same word used of the cloud that overshadowed the disciples on the mount of Transfiguration when they were made privy to Christ’s essential deity. This is not unlike the Shekinah Glory that overshadowed the tabernacle in the wilderness when God’s glory appeared in the holy of holies. The Word “dwelt” (tabernacle) among us.
Who can really explain how this miracle took place? Or any miracle? If we knew it would not be a miracle. We can only know what resulted. “Therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” William Kelly added,
and not merely Son of man. This is exceedingly important. ‘Son of God’ is a title that belongs to our Lord both in His Divine glory before He became a man and here; for, in this place when He became a man, he did not cease to be Son of God. As incarnate He was still the Son of God. So, again, when he rose from the dead, the same thing was true; He was the Son of God as risen again. . . He was the Son of God when He was purely and simply a Divine Person; Son of God when He became a man; Son of God when risen from the dead and gone out of this world to heaven.7
Though a man-woman conception did not take place (a thing necessary for all normal births, and necessary for sin to be brought forward from Adam and Eve), a conception did in fact take place; a conception somehow blending the divine and the human; a conception that kept in place the full humanity of the man, and the full deity of the divine; one person—two natures; Son of God, who can also now be called Son of man.
The take-back has begun
When the first man Adam sinned, the whole human race fell into sin and was taken captive by Satan at his will. What was rightfully God’s was stolen by the usurper. But on that eventful day of the virgin’s conception, God landed on our shores and began taking back what is rightfully His. One day He will return Himself, bodily, and in great glory, to bring about “the restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21). The usurper will be bound and kept in the bottomless pit while the whole earth enjoys its long-awaited millennial Jubilee.
Most people who have lived on this earth, however, have already died or will die before that event takes place. Their only hope is to participate in the one-on-one recovery that is now taking place: the gospel preaching offer of personal faith in Jesus the Christ. Their salvation is dependent, at least in part, on this miraculous virgin birth. The only way for human beings to be redeemed by God is to accept the salvation provided for by the substitutionary death, burial, and resurrection of the sinless God-Man.
The “bad news” of the book of Romans is that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (3:23). But the “good news” is that we can be “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:24). This isn’t done by God declaring sinners excused as if God could “look the other way” (which is what I think many people believe grace is). He could not do that and remain a just and holy God. No. There has to be a way for God to declare sinners justified and to remain just Himself.
This is why God became flesh and dwelt among us as the God-Man. “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (3:25-26).
A sinless, just, divine, man, would be the only hope of the world. A God-Man, Who could remain just Himself and bring the unjust to justification. “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). That began at that special moment of conception in Galilee, continued in that still and lonely night in Bethlehem, and was “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead,” (Rom. 1:4) that morning outside Jerusalem. “Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gift.”
For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep,
the angels keep,
Their watch of won-d’ing love.
O morning stars,
together proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King,
And peace to men on earth.