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The Holy Spirit in the Conception of Jesus

Our understanding of the incarnation of Christ begins with a grasp of the role of the Holy Spirit in His conception, which is specified in three statements in Matthew and Luke. 

  1. Mary was “found to be with child by (ek) the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 1:18).
  2. “The child who has been conceived in her is of (ek) the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 1:20).
  3. “The Holy Spirit will come upon (epi) you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow (episkiasei) you; and for that reason the holy child shall be called the Son of God” (Lk. 1:35).  

The discovery of Mary’s virgin pregnancy 

Matthew emphasizes Joseph’s discovery of the miracle of the conception. The narrative revolves around Joseph’s response and the social implications of Mary’s pregnancy. Upon learning that Mary was pregnant, Joseph immediately thought of how to put her away, but the explanation of the angel of the Lord explained its miraculous nature and quieted his restless agitation over this news. Mary had not been unfaithful. The new life in Mary’s womb is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:20). The new life is out of or from the Holy Spirit. This is the same language found in Matt. 1:18; “before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.” 

The explanation of Mary’s virgin conception  

Luke’s account revolves around Mary. The angel Gabriel visited her with the surprising greeting ‘Hail! Favored one!’ Luke 1:31 indicates that the conception had not yet occurred (the verb being in the future tense), suggesting that that Mary received the announcement first, since Joseph was told that Mary had already conceived. Luke 1:35 is the grand statement of the virgin conception: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.” 

The Secret Work of the Holy Spirit 

Matthew’s simple prepositional pronouncements (ekout of, from) are grand in their own simple way. The preposition ek denotes separation, i.e., the place, in this case the person, from whom the separation comes; the origin of the child conceived. He is “separated” from the Holy Spirit, has His origin from the Spirit, is of the Holy Spirit. How did the child in Mary’s womb get there? Not by human activity, but by placement in her womb by the direct but secret activity of the Holy Spirit. This is miracle. It is supernatural activity in Mary’s humanity creating the new life, yet in such a way that Mary begins to have a perfectly normal pregnancy. Once the child is conceived (Grk. gennao) in her by the immediate agency of the Holy Spirit, He grows according to the mediate agency of second causes created by God in His design of human procreation. The Greek gennao refers to the male activity in begetting a human life in the womb, but the Holy Spirit works apart from the male principle by giving conception out of Himself. The conception is the fruit of the Spirit Himself in the womb of Mary, setting in motion the created design of pregnancy, but without the male seed. 

Now Luke’s description of the Spirit’s work in the conception uses more exalted language. He explains the conception in Old Testament imagery of the Spirit coming upon men to empower them, as Gerald Hawthorne explains, “to enable them to do what they could not do by themselves” (Num. 24:2; Judg. 3:10).[1]  

There are no mythical or erotic overtones in Luke 1:35. The Spirit is not going to come upon Mary in the mythical sense of a god coming to procreate with a human. The biblical picture is like that of the strong man overpowering the weak in the power of the kingdom of God, as explained by Jesus in Luke 11:20-23 ~ “But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are undisturbed. But when someone stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away from him all his armor on which he had relied and distributes his plunder.” The kingdom of God is advancing in this coming of the Spirit upon Mary. And it is a Trinitarian work: The Father comes, through His Spirit, to create the new life in which the son of God will bring forth the kingdom with the good news of the Gospel. Fitzmyer says “Right here in Luke 1:35 are brought together all of the ingredients necessary out of which the doctrine of the Trinity was later to be formulated – “the Most High,” “the Son of God,” and “the Holy Spirit.”[2] 

The Holy Spirit Created the Life of Christ 

Should we view this conception out of the Holy Spirit as a physical manifestation of the Spirit or a spiritual one? 

The Holy Spirit was not the substance out of which the child was formed, but the efficient cause.[3] The conception was physical, in that an actual human baby was formed, but it was a spiritual manifestation of the Holy Spirit of God because the Spirit effected the inception of His life; He was the cause of conception. We all have life from the Spirit of God in our conception (Job 33:4), but it is through secondary causation which the Creator established as a law of the universe and of human life. But Jesus was not conceived by this second cause of human procreation. He was conceived by the first cause: direct, immediate, divine activity and intervention working without mediate causation.  Christ’s conception was miraculous because it did not involve a human seed. 

The Holy Spirit overshadowed  (episkiasei) Mary. This beautiful word points to the creative power of the Holy Spirit coming to do what only God can do. Hawthorne describes it thus: “The Holy Spirit is the creative, powerful presence of the Most High over and around and with Mary. As the tabernacle was full of, contained, the Shekinah glory….so Mary was to carry within herself the Son of God, the glory of God’s people Israel (cf. Luke 2:28-32, esp., v. 32). Luke, like Matthew, is saying in effect that the conception of Jesus in the womb of the virgin Mary differs from all other conceptions of children by their mothers in that there was no human father. The place of the human father was taken by the Spirit of God, by God Himself….This is an incredible mystery. In a sense the overshadowing of Mary hides from view the details of this divine activity. No one can penetrate more deeply into this enigmatic event than the text will allow. Matthew and Luke say just so much and no more…..setting in motion all the processes necessary to bring into being the full humanity of Jesus.”[4]

 The Holy Spirit Consecrated Jesus  

What is the relationship between the Spirit’s work of creation in the conception of Christ and Him being called the Son of God? Did the miracle in the womb of Mary constitute Him as the Son of God, just declare Him to be the Son of God, or declare the Son of God born of Mary to be holy? A literal translation of Luke 1:35c would read: “….on which account also the one conceived holy will be called Son of God.” 

Because of what was stated in 35a & b, the child conceived, and referred to in 35c, is described by the adjective holy and named as Son of God. What is the relationship between the Holy Spirit coming upon Mary and His being holy, the Son of God? 

The passage cannot be saying that Jesus became the Son of God because of His miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit. This is similar to the view that Jesus was adopted as Son of God at His baptism. Father and Son are revealed in the Bible in an eternal relationship. Jesus’ sonship did not have its beginning at the incarnation, otherwise, what would Jesus have been before the incarnation? He became a man and as man He was the Son of Man and the Son of God. 

The passage is describing the incarnation of the eternal Son of God. This child was born holy. Holy denotes consecration and separation to God. From the inception of His conception He was set apart for God.  

The Holy Spirit was the energizing factor by which Jesus was conceived within the virgin-womb of Mary; the Holy Spirit was that divine creative element by which the fashioning of Jesus’ humanity was begun……the humanity that was so carefully and uniquely generated by the Holy Spirit, was the very humanness that the eternal Son made his own and within which he became incarnate – words of the Psalmist placed in the mouth of Jesus: “Sacrifices and offerings You O God have not desired, but a body You have prepared for Me” (Heb. 10:5)……Luke 1:35……Matt. 1:23……..seem to be saying that the Holy Spirit created the humanity that the Eternal Son made His very own, within which He completely immersed Himself.[5] 

How do we understand this new life in the womb of Mary as holy? “The quality of hagion (holiness) is to be attached to Jesus precisely because His conception and birth was the result of the creative activity of the Holy Spirit….because He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. But what did Luke mean when he wrote that Jesus would be holy?”[6]           

Holy means that Jesus is the Anointed One; the Messiah, Savior, and Deliverer. 

We can see David, God’s anointed, having the oil poured upon Him: “I have found David My servant; With My holy oil I have anointed him” (Psalm 89:20). The Apostles preached Christ as “Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed…” (Acts 4:27).

Holy means that Jesus is divine.  

He is the eternal Son of God who become a man, by means of conception in the womb of the virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit’s causation. The eternal Son is God and God is holy. The child, therefore, is holy because He is divine. Philip Hughes says:

 The nativity was not the beginning of the Son’s existence, but an event, a becoming, in his eternal existence. That is why it is said that the Word, who is God, became flesh (Jn. 1:1, 14), that he became in the likeness of man (Phil. 2:7), and that he came from a woman (Gal. 4:4). The virgin birth of Jesus, then, is God in action uniting the human and the divine in the one theanthropic person of the incarnate Son. Accordingly, Ignatius, writing early in the second century, spoke of Jesus Christ as Son of Mary and Son of God, as generate and ingenerate.[7] 

Holy means that He is full of the Holy Spirit.  

If this could be spoken of John in Luke 1:15 – “and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb…”- surely it would apply to Jesus in a much greater way. Certain statements made of John’s life in the birth narrative of Luke also apply to Jesus.

Holy means that He is sinless. 

This is so only in His case. Man can be holy through grace, but not sinless. But when we speak of Jesus as “Holy Child of Bethlehem,” we mean sinlessness and nothing less than that. 

John Owen refers Isa. 11:1-3 to the conception of Jesus: “His first sanctifying work in the womb is principally intended: for these expressions, “a rod out of the stem of Jesse,” and “a Branch out of his roots,” with respect whereunto the Spirit is said to be communicated unto him, do plainly regard his incarnation; and the soul of Christ, from the first moment of its infusion, was a subject capable of a fullness of grace, as unto its habitual residence and in-being, though the actual exercise of it was suspended for a while, until the organs of the body were fitted for it. This, therefore, it received by this first unction of the Spirit. Hence, from His conception, he was holy.” (emphasis mine)[8] 

But why is He sinless? Was it merely because He did not have a human father? Are we to view His sinlessness as the result of no transmission of a sin nature through the Father? Hughes is helpful in answering these questions. 

There is, however, no justification for concluding, as did some of the patristic authors, that the virginity of Mary was the source of the sinlessness of Jesus…..The biblical account of the nativity clearly attributes the holiness of the child borne by Mary not to her virginity but to the sanctifying operation of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:35).[9] 

Holy means that He is a new creature, a new man, the true man. 

God created Adam from the dust of the earth and breathed into Him the breath of life. But He did not create the child Jesus from the inanimate creation and breathe into Him. Instead, He set in motion the processes of human formation in the womb of Mary in an invisible and mysterious way. It is clearly the creation of a new man (it would not be right to say a new type of man, because Jesus was a real man), but the true man. Philip Hughes again: 

….man is the focal point of redemption….the reconciliation of man to his Creator means also the restoration of the whole creation and the realization of the destiny for which he and it were always intended. The fundamental requirement for the achievement of this end is the reintegration within man of the image of God at the heart of his being, and this is necessarily effected through the Second Person of the Holy Trinity for the reason that he himself is the Image after whom man was created. There is, as we have shown earlier, a special line of affinity that links the Son of God to our humanity – a line which, though it in no way nullifies the absolute ontological transcendence of the Creator over the creature, does establish an association that is unique to man in the ontological sphere of creation, and that points to the possibility of the incarnation, the becoming man, of the Image himself in whom man has been formed……The truth that lies behind this double linkage is, first of all, that man is God’s creature; secondly, that man alone of God’s creatures is formed in the image of God; and thirdly, that the eternal Son is the Image in accordance with which man was formed.[10]  

The incarnation of the Son effected the transfer of our origin into himself, “so that we may no longer as mere earth return to earth, but as being joined to the Word from heaven may be carried up to heaven by Him.”[11] 

What then was the role of the Holy Spirit in the conception of Jesus? Jesus is of and from the Holy Spirit; He is holy Spirit, though conceived in the womb of a sinful woman. This conception is so utterly extraordinary in the life and history of sinful man that Luke described it as an overpowering and subduing of humanity in history’s most astonishing and majestic victory of the Spirit of God in overturning human sin. “O come let us adore Him,” “incarnate Deity,” the Spirit, who “abhors not the virgin’s womb,” who comes to overshadow Mary and favor her to bear the “holy child” Jesus, “who will save His people from their sins.” 

John Reuther, Pastor, Covenant Baptist Church, Lumberton, NJ 

[1] Gerald F. Hawthorne, The Presence & The Power: The Significance of the Holy Spirit in the Life and Ministry of Jesus (Dallas, TX: Word, 1991), 67.

[2]  Quoted in Hawthorne, The Presence & The Power, 65. 

[3] Hawthorne, The Presence & The Power, 71.

[4] Ibid., 72. 

[5] Hawthorne, The Presence & The Power, 79.

[6] Ibid., 81.

[7] Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, The True Image (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; IVP, 1989), 216.

[8] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, Christian Library Series (AGES Software Library®, LLC.), Volumes 3 & 4 on the Holy Spirit, from the 16 Volume Series, 211.

[9] Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, The True Image (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; IVP, 1989), 217, 218. 

[10] Hughes, Image, 213.

[11] Hughes, Image, 286.

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