Title: Jesus Was Born of the Spirit Which is Holy
Text: Matthew 1:18-25
Time: December 4th, 2011
We’re only twenty-one days away from Christmas day, so I thought I’d speak on the birth of Jesus. This sermon was inspired by my reading in the Greek New Testament, which is my daily habit that I try to keep as often as I can. I bring up the fact that this message was inspired by reading the Christmas account in Matthew in the original Greek because of something I noticed that doesn’t come through in the English translations. I first learned Greek during my college days at Wheaton College in Illinois over twenty-five years ago. Ever since I’ve tried to keep up my Greek by reading from it almost every day in connection with my daily devotions. Well, I was reading through both the Christmas account in Matthew and Luke, when something jumped out of the passage that drew attention to a point I’d never noticed before. Now usually the Bible translators do a really good job of translating the Greek into English for us whose main language is English, so we don’t have to worry that we are missing anything. But sometimes they simply overlook something that may or may not be important in their translation of Greek into English. For example, here’s what Matthew 20-21 says in the NIV, “But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’” We are all familiar with this passage because it’s the angel’s announcement to Joseph through a dream that it’s ok to marry Mary. But what caught my eye in the original Greek language of the New Testament is this – the verse actually says something more than what is translated. Here’s what I mean. Here is the original, literal translation of the last part of verse twenty, “Because what is conceived in her is from the Spirit that is Holy,” or “the Spirit which is Holy.” Most translations translate it, “Because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” The King James Version, the Living Bible, Today’s English Version, Phillips Modern English, the Revised Standard Version, the Jerusalem Bible and New English Bible all translate it, “Holy Spirit,” also. And after all, “the Spirit of Holiness” or “the Spirit that is Holy” means “Holy Spirit” anyway. So all these translations are correct, but I think they miss something important that is being made in the text. If it weren’t for the context of the verse, there’d be no point to be made in me bringing up this slight detail. But because there is a very clear and important context for the use of the phrase, “the Spirit which is Holy,” I think that we are missing something when we simply translate the passage using merely, “Holy Spirit.” Let me explain. We are now in the Christmas season so let’s talk about the Christmas account of the birth of Jesus. Today, let’s look at a detail of that account from Luke 1:18-25 (read).
First, there’s the context of the passage – Jesus is conceived by the power of the Spirit, which at first caused problems. Matthew 1:18-19, “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” So the context is that Mary suddenly becomes pregnant through the Holy Spirit and Joseph her husband didn’t understand and couldn’t believe it was from God. So if he didn’t believe Mary was pregnant from God what did he believe? He must have believed that she was pregnant from some man – that would be the natural and normal way to become pregnant. We know he didn’t believe Mary at first because he was thinking of divorcing her. If he had really believed her story about the angelic announcement and the Holy Spirit he wouldn’t have made plans to divorce her — or thought seriously about it. He would have rejoiced in the will of God and accepted the miraculous conception and married Mary. But he was thinking of not marrying her because he didn’t believe the story. I think we can all understand his feelings. Who could believe such a strange tale? We believe it because of the whole Bible, the prophecies of the Old Testament, such as Isaiah 7:14 and others, and because of the New Testament accounts. We see the big picture. But Joseph was just an ordinary guy confronted with a strange and extraordinary situation. Now notice in Matthew’s account it says that Mary was “found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” In the original Greek the verse literally says, “found to be with child though the Holy Spirit.” So there is no difference between the Greek and the English translations in this case, in this verse. Of course, the Greek puts it, “Spirit Holy” instead of Holy Spirit, but that’s normal in biblical Greek. That happens in other languages, even modern languages. In English we put the word order as adjective and then the subject, like, “green tree,” but in other languages, they put the subject first, then the adjective, “tree green.” Nothing wrong with that. But my point is, the context of the verse is Mary giving Joseph this fantastic account of her being pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph, being a normal man, couldn’t believe it. He must have thought that Mary was pregnant through some sinful act, either Mary’s own unfaithful and immoral act, or some man’s sinful act of forcible rape. What other natural explanation is there? Joseph was thinking that something sinful had occurred. The child was conceived not through something holy but through something unholy. Now we can see a clue as to the word order in the next couple verses.
Second, there’s the reason for the word order – to bring out the holy nature of the conception. Matthew 1:20-21, “But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from Holy Spirit (the Spirit which is Holy). She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’” Now we can see the importance of the literal Greek phrase, “the Spirit that is Holy” or “the Spirit which is Holy.” Because it is literally saying, “No longer think of Mary’s pregnancy as the product of something sinful, immoral or unholy, because it is something from the Spirit which is Holy!” Or in other words, “Joseph, don’t think any longer of Mary’s situation, her pregnancy, as the result of something bad or dirty or evil, because it really is something from God, it’s holy, from the very Spirit of holiness.” Now we miss that point if we follow the typical English translation of the verse. Thankfully, there aren’t many places in the New Testament that cover up an important point in the original Greek, but there are a few, like the one I’ve just mentioned. But I thought it was important to point out to you that the verse isn’t just giving the origination of Mary’s conception, it’s actually refuting Joseph’s thinking that Mary had been involved with something sinful or immoral or unholy. The word order, the literal Greek is saying that the child was conceived “out of the Spirit that is Holy,” rather than just restating that the pregnancy was from the Holy Spirit, it means to communicate that the child conceived is clean and the origination of the conception is not only clean but as clean as can be, as holy as can be, from the Spirit of God that is Holy. Do you see how rich the Bible is? Do you see how important careful Bible study is to the knowledge and growth of the Christian? Now you may say, “How could I ever discover what you discovered? I don’t know Greek, the original language of the New Testament.” Yes, but you can dig into the Bible through commentaries and study Bibles and learn the same thing. As a Christian I hope you have a few Bible commentaries laying around and a few books that explain the Bible in depth, because you can learn things like this from them. And we should all be curious about things like this, because they can give us better insight into the workings of God. You do want to know God better, don’t you? You do want to know his will and way better, don’t you? We can grow a lot in our faith by simply asking questions such as, “Why does the Bible say it this way, rather than some other way?” That’s what I asked to discover this fine point.
Third, there’s the lesson we can learn from this insight – God has a plan and purpose for everything he does. Matthew 1:22-25, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel – which means, God with us.’ When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” The Bible wasn’t just throw together like some people think today. Today, there are liberal, secular scholars who belittle the Bible and say it is the product of a cut and past process over many years. They say that it can’t be trusted, because different people than the names given on the biblical books wrote it. They say all kinds of disrespectful things about the Bible, God’s Holy Word. But as Christians we know that the Bible is the Word of God. It is true, it doesn’t contain errors or contradictions. God has a plan and purpose in giving us the Bible through the prophetic writings. Every book, every chapter, every paragraph, every sentence, every word – they are all important and they are all there for a reason. Today we just learned an important point that is often overlooked in most Bible translations today. That just shows that the Bible is even richer than we can imagine. Now I don’t fault the Bible translators because translating the phrase “the Spirit which is Holy” can legitimately be translated, “the Holy Spirit.” But in this case, in this passage in Matthew, it should have been translated more literally and more accurately because it actually brings out the important point that there is no hint of sin, immorality or unholiness in the conception and birth of Jesus. This passage, in it’s literal sense, in the sense I’ve tried to point out, refutes all the false and slanderous rumors that some pagans have tried to spread about the virgin birth of Jesus. There is the outrageous and evil rumor about Jesus being the son of a Roman solider named Pantarus. There’s no evidence for it; it’s just a vile rumor someone invented to hurt Christians. But this verse, the way it is constructed in the literal original Greek, refutes all such rumors. What was conceived in the womb of Mary was holy, was from the Spirit who is Holy. Just like the Apostle’s Creed says, Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit” and “born of the virgin Mary.” There is nothing dirty, immoral, unclean or unholy about the way Jesus was conceived or born. So this Christmas let us rejoice in that our Savior Jesus Christ was miraculously born, lived a supernatural life and was raised to life on the third day by the power of God the Father. We believe a supernatural faith – and we don’t have to be ashamed to say so. God is inviting us to live a supernatural life. Are you willing to live supernaturally? God is inviting you and me to do so this Christmas. Let’s pray.