Everybody knows that virgins don’t conceive! Mary certainly knew that. After all, she asked the Angel Gabriel at the announcement that she would conceive and bear a Son, “How can this be, since I do not know a man” (Luke 1:34)? The answer is, of course, the same as that which is given to the question surrounding the mysterious miracle working of God at creation. Here, it is the mysterious miracle working of God in the new creation. “The Holy Spirit…will overshadow you” (Luke 1:25). Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of creation, so He hovered over the virgin Mary at the great work of bringing about the new creation through the incarnation of the Son of God. The Scriptures are replete with instances in which the Holy Spirit was actively working to foreshadow the new creation in a manner similar to that by which He had worked at the original creation. Consider the following:
“The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” are some of the first words of Scripture. With each creative word, the Holy Spirit was bringing about what the Father had ordained and the Son had spoken into existence. The Scriptures are clear that the Holy Spirit is the creative agent of the Godhead. Concerning all living things, we read, “You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; and You renew the face of the earth” (Ps. 104:30). The importance of the Spirit’s role in creation is understood as we consider His role in the work of the new creation.
Typical New Creation
When God destroyed the world with floodwaters (i.e. the undoing of creational blessing), He covered the world with the waters that He had separated when He created the world. With the flood, there was judgment and curse with the same waters from which life and blessing had once emerged. When God had mercy on Noah and those with him in the Ark, He sent a strong wind to blow across the face of the waters. Stephen Dempster makes the following important observation: “Following the flood, which is represented as a return to the pre-creation chaos of Genesis 1:2, a new creation occurs with the presence of the Spirit of God pushing back the primal waters (Gen. 8:1).”1 The Hebrew word for “wind” and ” Spirit” are one and the same–or, at least, have the same root. There is an intentional relation of the wind and the Spirit by our Lord Jesus in His regeneration discourse with Nicodemus in John 3.
The next typical act of re-creation (or new creation) in Scripture is the Exodus. When God brings Israel through the waters of the Red Sea, it is hard for us not to see the similarity of language between the creation account and this great typical act of redemption in the OT. We are told that God caused the waters to blow back by a strong wind . In the same way as the waters were parted at creation, so they were parted at the Exodus. Then, dry land appeared. The Holy Spirit was effecting this typical new creation. Israel coming through the Red Sea, and their enemies being destroyed in the waters (as God’s enemies had been destroyed in the flood water) was a picture of death and resurrection. There were to come through the waters and be a new people to the Lord God.
It should not surprise us to find the Spirit at work from the very beginning of our Lord Jesus’ life and ministry. The Spirit was the One who filled Mary, Elizabeth and Zacharias as they prophesied about the Redeemer and His forerunner.
However, the great appeal to the Holy Spirit in the incarnation comes when the Angel Gabriel told Mary that “the Holy Spirit…will overshadow you.” As He hovered over the waters at creation, the flood, the exodus, so now He would come over the womb of the virgin and begin the work of bringing about the new creation through the incarnate Christ.
Sinclair Ferguson captures the relationship between the miracle of creation and the miracle of the incarnation so well when he notes:
We are meant to be staggered…We tend to pride ourselves that we know this so well; and we say, “It doesn’t stagger me that He was virgin born.” It staggered Joseph that He was virgin born. It staggered Mary that He was virgin born. “She pondered these things.” It staggered Matthew; and, it ought to stagger us. We ought to understand that this is a singularity in the history of the universe, that this is unique, because this is Emmanuel–this is God entering our world. Of course, God has been present working in history, governing history; but what happens here is that He actually becomes part of history. And, if I may say so, He becomes the tiniest part of history–the One who threw the stars into their places, who created the vast cosmos is coming into the womb of the virgin Mary through the secret work of the Holy Spirit, in the sheer tininess of embryonic form, in the total dependence on His humanity upon His mother, in the long months in the fetal position; and then coming forth from His mothers womb in a cave, back of a house; this is the mystery of the incarnation; this is the supernatural work of God. And yet, we understand as Christian believers that this–the great miracle–is simply all of a piece with the first miracle. What was the first miracle? Creation out of nothing! Creation out of absolutely nothing–this world, people, the planets, the stars, everything, designed from the immensity and brilliance of the mind of our Lord Jesus Christ and then brought into being by through His powerful word. He who creates cosmos out of nothing is well able, in the mystery of His purposes, to give His Son, into our world, by means of conception in the womb of a virgin.
You’d like to be able to explain it, wouldn’t you. Do you think if God explained how He did this, your mind would be capacious enough to take it in. Or do you think if He gave the scientific formula for creation out of nothing you’d be able to say, “You know, I think I worked that out for myself already?” No, my dear friends, if God was to speak the language and the mathematics and the physics that was necessary to express creation out of nothing and virginal conception our minds would seek to expand to their limit to take it in until we reach the the point that we said, “I’m sorry that I asked the question. I am just a man or a woman, a boy or a girl. This is too great for me!” And you see, that’s the point that we come to recognize that here is the difference between the believer and the unbeliever. That’s the point where the believer is content to say, “You are God and I am not, and I’m content that it should be that way.” Whereas the unbeliever will say, with Friedrich Nietzsche, “If there is a God who can do such things, how can I bear not to be that God; and so I will not believe.” Yes, it is an amazing, supernatural miracle; but like God’s great works–creation, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection–done safe from men’s prying eyes. He brings light out of darkness. He brings His Son into the dark womb of a virgin.
Significantly, the Holy Spirit hovered over the Lord Jesus and the waters of His baptism–when he took to Himself a sign of repentance, as the sin-bearer of His people. He would be baptized with another baptism–a bloody judgment at the cross (Mark 10). The Spirit was coming on Him in the form of a dove, indicating that He was the antitype of the Ark–in whom everyone who was united would be redeemed. He was the greater Israel, who would pass through the judgment of baptism (i.e. at the cross) and so bring about the true and greater Exodus for all who believe in Him (Luke 9:31).
The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus “through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God” (Heb. 9:14). This means that throughout the entire life of the Lord Jesus, culminating in His atoning death on the cross, the Spirit was energizing Him and active in the participation of His work. This enables the Spirit to take the work that Jesus did and apply it to the lives of His people today. How can an act that happened 2000 years ago on a wooden instrument of execution effect change in me today? The answer is simple–because the Holy Spirit was there enabling the Lord Jesus to offer Himself to God on my behalf.
Amazingly, we are told that Jesus was also raised “by the Spirit” when Paul tells the church in Rome, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus[a] from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). Jesus was functionally “born again” in the resurrection from the dead by the powerful working of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is, by the Spirit, the regenerate One in the resurrection. This enable the Spirit to regenerate us.
Sinclair Ferguson ties together the role of the Holy Spirit in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ in order to bring about the new creation when he made the following observation”
The Spirit who was present and active at Christ’s conception as the head of the new creation, by whom He was anointed at baptism (John 1:32-34), who directed Him throughout His temptations (Matthew 4:1), empowered Him in His miracles (Luke 11:20), energized Him in His sacrifice (Hebrews 9:14), and vindicated Him in His resurrection (1 Timothy 3:16; Romans 1:4), now indwells disciples in this specific identity.
Once Christ had finished the work of redemption–the securing of the new creation–through His death and resurrection, He ascended to heaven in order to pour out His Spirit on His people. The Apostle Paul draws together this most important truth when he writes, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the Law, that He might redeem those who were under the Law so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father” (Gal. 4:4-6)! The Son of God purchased the Holy Spirit, and His regenerating work, for all those for whom He died. The Spirit now comes and fills the hearts of believers. He forms the Son of God in our hearts, even as He formed the human nature of the Son of God in the womb of the virgin. The end result is that we too become sons and heirs of God. We have new life breathed into us. As Paul so boldly explains, “If anyone is in Christ he is new creation, old has passed away, behold the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:14). William Still captured the nature of the Spirit’s work in the hearts of believers when he wrote:
What is the effect of the Spirit of the Son in our hearts? This is most intriguing of all. He comes as Christ came to the earth, a very babe, the merest bundle of life, to cry like an infant; but it is the authentic cry of the child who knows his Parent. The Spirit of the Son in our heart does not cry there for His Father as if He was lost in that poor human heart, but as one whose spirit has been eternally fused (not confused) with that human spirit, formerly dead in trespasses and sins; so that as the Son cries to His Father in our heart, so man’s spirit, newborn and quickened, cries also to his (new) Father…Now he awakens to the reality, and makes his first cry to the Father. And, of course, the first articulate cry of a child, irrespective of race or nation, is ‘Ab-ba.4
1. Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, NSBT (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2003), 73
2. An excerpt taken from Sinclair Ferguson’s sermon, “Jesus, Name Above All Names: Immanuel.”
3. Sinclair Ferguson The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996) p. 72
4. William Still Notes on Galatians (Aberdeem: Didasko Press, reprinted 1972) pp. 56-57