know of no subject which divides all of Christianity (including Catholic and
Orthodox) more than the view of the virgin Mary. It is one of the division
points between Roman and Greek churches; it is a major point of division between
Catholic and Protestant as well. It would be a major division point between
Protestant and Orthodox too, if we ever got to know each other. But in what
follows, we will stick with Matthew’s wording and see what can be learned – and
what can be left.
the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been
betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child
by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not
wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had
considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream,
saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife;
for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. "She
will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people
from their sins." Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by
the Lord through the prophet: "BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND
SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL," which translated
means, "GOD WITH US." And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the
angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary
as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called
His name Jesus.
(Mat 1:18-25 NASB)
may begin with the seldom studied character of Joseph. He’s a man with a
problem. Mary, being betrothed to him, is actually living in the house of
Joseph’s parents, if the custom of the time holds true. As a practical matter
of fact, it would have been almost impossible for Joseph to have had sex with
Mary; he certainly reacted as if he was not the father. But in his reaction
we can see the character of this righteous man:
it is clear that he is a follower of the Jewish Law. There is no sex
outside marriage. That’s what he follows; that’s what he expected Mary to
know also that he is not a vengeful man, given to anger – for he stopped
to think about this development.
is instead a patient man, for he takes time to think through the
his point of view, he had three options:
could make a proclamation concerning Mary, accusing her of adultery (which
would be the case under the Law.) At the least Mary would be ostracized
for life; it is quite likely that the village would have stoned her to
could, on the other hand, simply pass over the incident and marry her
anyway. It would ruin his reputation, however, for he would then be an
accomplice to adultery.
could do as many other families have done – you send her away to some
relatives who aren’t local, let her have the baby and (perhaps) give the
child to someone.
his wisdom, Joseph chose the third option. To select the first would have been
vengeful. To select the second would make him a sinner also. So, the quiet,
peaceful route was chosen. In this there is wisdom; but God had other plans.
man of obedience
method by which Joseph gets his explanation – and his marching orders – is a
very personal, intimate one.
angel appears to him in a dream. The shepherds needed the full angel
chorus; Zacharias needed the angel in person; Joseph is sufficiently
trusting of God that a dream suffices.
angel reminds him of his ancestry: he is a descendant of David, the king
of Israel. The matter is one of family, then.
dream arrives as Joseph is pondering what to do.
is given two explicit instructions. One concerns the child’s name. It is not
apparent in the English, but the original carries with it the implication that
the child’s name is already selected; Joseph is merely being informed as to
what it already is. The angel also gives him a command of courage: “Do not
fear…” Undoubtedly tongues will wag; times will be tough. But do not fear.
shall skip the usual compendium of arguments about Mary, confining ourselves to
listing the prominent views. But before that, we have an interesting question:
a virgin who was betrothed?
male organs are not involved in this; why did God select a young woman who was
this gave her son a genealogy. Descent was always taken from the male
side of the house; by this logic, Christ’s right to the throne of David
comes through Joseph.
there is the practical fact that after the fuss dies down, Mary has to
live in the community. A single mom with a child out of wedlock would be
ostracized at the least (remember the woman at the well?)
there is the little matter, seldom mentioned these days, of their flight
to Egypt. Such a journey in those days was perilous indeed with a man;
without such she is in real danger of rape.
promised, a slightly biased review of the views of Mary:
In the Eastern Orthodox view (and many others) Mary is viewed as the “God
Bearer.” This view gives Mary a place above other women, for her child
was greater than all other men. This view prevailed until Christianity
became the official religion of the Roman Empire. It then became
convenient for the new religion to have a Goddess, like the other
religions. (There are some striking parallels between Mary and, for
- Mother of God. This is the Roman Catholic view. In this view,
Mary is not only higher, but she also (in some way) is to be considered
part of the Godhead. She therefore takes a prominent place in worship.
Out of this view have come doctrines which “must be true” if Mary is
indeed a participant in the Godhead. For example, the Immaculate Conception
(meaning that Mary was born without original sin) and the perpetual
virginity of Mary. The clear implication is that without Mary, in
particular, Christ could not have come. This has been raised to the point
where the late pope, John Paul II, seriously gave consideration to
announcing ex cathedra that Mary is co-redemptrix with Christ.
- Model woman. In the Protestant view Mary is seen as a model of
what women should be. This has produced its distortions as well, but we
may bring out some points regarding her character.
Like Joseph, this young girl takes on a challenge for which she could not
have prepared. Only the habit of obedience would produce such a meek
reply. (Remember, Moses objected to being given his job).
Could God select someone without a pure heart?
In her reply (in Luke) we see one who is so devoted to her God that she
calls herself the “handmaid” of God. Not puffing herself up or
proclaiming her divinity, she is happy to be a servant.
Halley, a Bible commentator from the 1920s who was a fire breathing opponent of
the Catholic Church, condemned that church but separated Mary from her
arose on the ruins of the Roman Empire, in the name of Christ occupying the
throne of the Caesars; a Revival of the Image of the Roman Empire inheriting
the Spirit thereof; ‘the Ghost of the Roman Empire come to life in the garb of
Christianity’ ... It brought itself to power through the prestige of Rome, and
the Name of Christ, and by shrewd political alliances, and by deception, and by
armed force; and by Armed Force and Bloodshed has maintained itself in
power“ (flaming capitals in the original) -- from which you can see how he felt
about the Catholic church. Yet see how he views Mary:
“Mary was a
quiet, meditative, devoted, wise woman, most honored of women, queen of
mothers, sharing the cares common to motherhood. We admire her, we honor
her, and we love her because she was the mother of our Savior.”
shall speak somewhat more about the Incarnation in a later lesson, I hope, but
the concept has given the church trouble (and heresy) from the very beginning.
The question to be faced is this: How can God, the sovereign of the universe,
be a little baby?
Scripture gives us very little to go on. But we may see it in the titles He
called himself the Son of Man – meaning he was of human descent. He
didn’t just crawl out of the spaceship.
is also Son of God.
two cannot be reconciled – outside the Virgin Birth.
is this necessary?
did God go to this trouble? Why not a flaming angel telling folks to write
down his words?
there is a long history of prophecy – from the Garden of Eden onward –
that proclaims the coming of the Messiah in just this way. We were
there is the Law of the Jews – which requires the perfect sacrifice. If
his own people are to have any chance to accept him, this must be
those not under the law, they could still understand the concept of ransom
– someone else paying for my release.
is only one question
do you say that Jesus is?
say that He is the one born of the virgin, Mary. So he is fully human as
I am. He knows my weaknesses.
say that He is the Christ, the Messiah, the long promised Holy One of
say that He is the Son of God, bearing the same essence that unites Him
with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
I believe; on this I have staked not only my life, but my life eternal. God
helping, I can do no other.