On Sunday evening we looked at a catechism question relating to the message of Christmas. Over the past number of months, we have dipped in and out of the Shorter Catechism at our evening services to help us understand more fully the Christian faith. Here is the question and answer we looked at together:
Q. 22: How did Christ the Son of God become man?
A. 22: Christ, the Son of God, became man by taking to Himself a body and a soul like ours, being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.
This question in the catechism covers what is commonly called Christ’s incarnation. Often we talk about why Jesus came to earth but this question of the catechism is concerned with how He came to earth.
This question and answer is one of the most profound in the entire catechism. We move into deep theological waters when we begin to talk about the incarnation of Christ. Throughout church history, people have gone wrong because of their view of how Jesus came into the world. One person says, “Among the many mysteries in the Christian religion, the incarnation is, with the trinity, the most wondrous.”
So how did Christ become man? Well, the catechism answer can be broken into three parts. It first of all tells us He became man by taking to Himself a body and a soul like ours. Here the language of the catechism is very careful and precise. It is careful not to make God into a man or man into God. It insists that the eternal Son of God assumed a human nature, not a human person. Jesus was a man - He had a real human nature which included a reasonable soul like ours. But He was never a person considered apart from the Son of God.
The technical term for the union between Jesus human nature and His divine nature is the hypostatic union. That sounds complex - and in many ways it is complex - but this is the term that theologians have used when speaking of Jesus taking to Himself a body and a soul like ours.
The second thing the catechism goes on to say is that Jesus was “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her.” This is really just a paraphrase of what we read at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew 1:18 says:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18 ESV)
What is implied through this statement in the catechism is that the Trinity was at work when Jesus was born. It was the plan of the Father to send Jesus to earth and it was the work of the Holy Spirit to make it happen. One writer called Mark Jones uses this helpful illustration:
“If the Father was responsible, as the master architect, for ‘designing’ and ‘preparing’ the body the Son would assume, the Holy Spirit, like a master builder, was responsible for the actual formation of the human nature of Christ in the womb of Mary.”
Mark Jones, Knowing Christ, p.27
The other important thing to notice in this catechism answer is are the final three words: “yet without sin.” Jesus came to earth and assumed a human nature in order to save the bodies and souls of His people. There was no sin involved in His birth and there was no sin in His life.
The Bible, though, does point us to the idea that human nature of Christ was sinless, but that it suffered from the infirmities that were a part of the curse of man’s fall into sin. Theologians have made the distinction between painful infirmities and sinful infirmities. Jesus had no sinful infirmities. As far as painful infirmities - such as disease, pain, grief and sorrow - the Bible tells us that He was “a man of sorrows acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). It doesn't tell us that He suffered from disease but of course we read of Him weeping at the news of the death of His friend Lazarus (John 11:28-37).
Why is all of this important for us to know? Well, very simply, because Jesus came as one of us and experienced things that we experience, He is a more than able Saviour. If He is anything less than what we’re told in this catechism answer, then He no longer someone who can save us. Heaven kisses earth as Jesus comes among us.
This subject is a deep mystery and there is much more we could say about it. One quote that helps depict the wonder of this mystery comes from Stephen Charnock, a Puritan preacher and writer. He says:
“What a wonder it is, that two natures infinitely distant, should be more intimately suited than anything in the world; and yet without any confusion! That the same person should have both a glory and a grief; an infinite joy in the Deity, and an inexpressible sorrow in the humanity! That a God upon a throne should be an infant in a cradle; the thundering Creator be a weeping babe and a suffering man, are such expressions of mighty power, as well as condescending love, that they astonish men upon earth, and angels in heaven.”
Stephen Charnock, 'The Existence and Attributes of God' in Works, 5 Vols, 2:60
What a message we have at Christmas time. That someone so unlike us would come among us to bring us into His family. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became man by taking to Himself a body and a soul like ours, being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin for us.
If you’d like to do some reading on this subject there helpful resources listed below. All of these would be great stocking fillers this Christmas!
This is an article written by David Mathis which is available on the Desiring God website. If you’ve never heard the phrase ‘hypostatic union’ before this would be worth reading.
This is a short book - only 81 pages long - but it is extremely useful in explaining key concepts surrounding the person and work of Jesus in simple form.
This is one of the most significant Christian books ever written. In chapter five, Packer writes specifically about the incarnation but the whole book would be worth reading.
This is a longer book by Mark Jones and in it here works through different facets of Christ’s birth, life and death. The chapters are relatively short and the book would make for good devotional reading.
This book tells the story of a selection of figures from the Christian past, followers of Jesus whose lips have now fallen silent but who speak through their writings and examples. Notable figures covered include William Tyndale, John Owen and Jonathan Edwards. The book also covers some of what we’ve been talking about above in its chapter on the Council of Chalcedon.