Father Abraham, Mother Mary

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I’ve been studying the gospels as of late. And one thing that I’ve only recently noticed is the striking parallels between Abraham in the Old Testament, and Mary in the New Testament.

In Romans, Paul calls Abraham the “father of all who believe” (4:16). The reason he calls him that, is because Abraham is the prototypical believer. He is the man of faith. He assents to God’s call from his homeland to a land he doesn’t know. He believes the promise of God: that he will have a son in his old age, and that this son will bless the nations. He believes even in the face of Sarah’s disbelief. But perhaps most shocking is Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice the promised son back to God. Not many years after God miraculously gave Abraham his son, God told Abraham to offer Isaac back as a sacrifice. In typological fashion, Abraham leads Isaac up the mount as he carries the wood of his own sacrifice. Hebrews tells us:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back (Heb 11:17-19)

Through and through, Abraham believed and obeyed. For this, he is our father in the faith. The “father of all who believe”. He is an example of life in Christ.

However, as one looks at the life of Mary, one finds incredible similarities that cannot be overlooked. Mary assents to the angel’s promise of a son, one through whom the nations will be blessed: “He will be great….and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:32-33). In fact, Luke contrasts her faithful assent to God with Zechariah’s doubt-filled question to the angel: “How shall I know this?” (Lk 1:18) Instead of doubting, Mary responds with: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). Mary and Zechariah parallel Abraham and Sarah. And like Abraham, Mary was asked to give assent to her Son’s self-sacrifice; except, while Isaac was spared, Jesus was not. Mary, at the foot of the cross, watched her Son truly die! And watching her Son die, Mary certainly would have struggled to believe as Abraham did. How could her Son bless the world, if he was to die? She was forced to believe in a more dramatic and real way than Abraham “that God was able even to raise him from the dead” (Heb 11:19).

Now, what is even more striking here, is that while Paul assigns Abraham our father in the faith, Christ himself assigns Mary our mother in the faith. As Jesus hung on the cross, he gave his mother to his disciples! John 19 tells us:

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother,“Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home (John 19:26-27)

The beloved disciple is John. However, he leaves his name out to include all of Christ’s disciples. In this way, Jesus is giving his mother to the entire church as an example of the Christian life. She, like Abraham, believes and trusts. She, like Abraham, is a parental figure, an example of life in Christ. One may even say, a greater example, for she saw her Son truly die; and in the face of opposition, she believed God’s promise. In this way, then, Mary is the mother of all who believe.

Joseph Ratzinger now gives some insight:

The parallel between Mary and Abraham begins in the joy of the promised son but continues apace until the dark hour when she must ascend Mount Moriah, that is, until the Crucifixion of Christ. Yet it does not end there; it also extends to the miracle of Isaac’s rescue – the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Abraham, father of faith – this title describes the unique position of the patriarch in the piety of Israel and in the faith of the Church. But is it not wonderful that – without any revocation of the special status of Abraham – a “mother of believers” now stands at the beginning of the new people and that our faith again and again receives from her pure and high image its measure and its path?

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Jesus’ Sin-bearing Life

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Many assume that the point at which Jesus actually bore our sins was on the cross. And to be sure, this is true. 1 Peter 2:24 tells us that Christ “bore our sins in His body on the tree”. When Jesus uttered, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mt 27:46), it was a declaration that he was dying under the wrath of God as a sinner even though he was “without sin” (Heb 4:16). 

But was this substitutional “sin-bearing” by Jesus limited only on the cross? I don’t think so. I think it was far more comprehensive than that. I think that Jesus’ whole life was one of sin-bearing. That the Christ who was without sin was all at the same time bearing the sins of mankind his entire life.

Isaiah 53 gives a very illustrative glimpse of this. Isaiah says that Jesus “Himself bore our sicknesses, and He carried our pains; but we in turn regarded Him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted” (53:4). And it is not until the next verse that Isaiah speaks of this Servant being pierced for our transgressions. I believe that Isaiah here is pointing to a life of carrying “our pains”, being “afflicted” and outcast for our sake. Isaiah gets even more explicit in 53:7, saying that “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like a sheep silent before her shearers, He did not open His mouth”. He describes the Messiah as oppressed and afflicted and silent on his way to the slaughter — before the slaughter Christ was afflicted, silent, stricken. 

Matthew gives us a picture of this as well. Matthew 8 has an episode where Jesus heals many people who were brought to him — and he gives a commentary on why, saying,  “when evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed. He drove out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick, so that what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: He Himself took our weaknesses and carried our diseases” (Mt 8:16-17). He is quoting from Isaiah 53 here, and attributing it not to the death of Jesus only, but to his entire life and ministry. Matthew’s commentary on Isaiah 53 gives the imagery of Jesus bearing sickness in his body in his lifetime. It’s really quite interesting.

Also, in the episode of John 18-19 where Pilate interrogates Jesus, John highlights that Jesus makes no real defense for his innocence. The climax of the interrogation includes John’s personal commentary in which he says, “Jesus did not give an answer” (John 19:9). Since Jesus did in fact speak after this (John 19:11), we can assume that Jesus didn’t give an answer of defense. Meaning, he didn’t try to acquit himself, or argue his innocence — what I think John is highlighting is that Jesus went to the cross purposefully, as the world’s sin-bearer. This reminds us of Isaiah 53:7, that Jesus was a like a “sheep silent before her shearers, [and] He did not open His mouth”. He was bearing the sins of the world on himself, and therefore didn’t try to defend himself!

I believe that Jesus’ entire life was a life of substitution. That he was outcasted, afflicted, smitten, considered hated by God, and all that he might go to the cross as a sinner, even though he is the righteous one. 

I will end this post with a very insightful explanation from Horatius Bonar. His description of this sin-bearing life of Jesus is very helpful. Bonar says:

“[Jesus] was always that sinless One bearing our sins, carrying them up to the cross as well as bearing them upon the cross. Substitution…attached itself to each part of his life as truly as His death. Our burden He assumed when He entered the manger, and laid it aside only at the cross. The utterance, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30), pointed back to a whole life’s sin-bearing work…

He entered our world as the Substitute. ‘There was no room for them in the inn’ (Lk 2:7) — the inn of Bethlehem, the city of David, His own city. ‘Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor’ (2 Cor 8:9). In poverty and banishment His life begun. He was not allowed either to be born or die [without being] an outcast man. ‘[Outside] the gate’ (Heb 13:12) was His position, as He entered and as He left our earth. Man would not give even a roof to shelter or a cradle to receive the helpless babe. It was as a Substitute that He was the outcast from the first moment of His birth. His vicarious life began in the manger. For what can this poverty mean, this rejection by man, this outcast condition, but that His sin-bearing had begun?” (from The Everlasting Righteousness, emphasis his)

Why the Incarnation?

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We all love Christmas. I’ve been listening to a lot of Christmas music as we approach this season, and have been reading a bit on the Christmas story. We get a lot of happy feelings when Christmas comes along. I’d like to think that it’s because we meditate on the love of God breaking into the creation he made; but more realistically, it’s probably the time with family and abundance of desserts.

But in reality, Christmas should awaken much different thoughts and feelings. This time celebrates the entrance of the writer into his own story. This time announces the creator’s condescension into flesh and blood. During Christmas, what we should most think about is the incarnation, when God the Son, became a man. When the infinite added to himself finiteness. What a wonderful mystery, is it not?

Have you ever thought about God becoming man? Have you ever tried to fathom the depths of the doctrine of the incarnation? If you do, you will soon find yourself in amazement over the unfathomable riches of this great doctrine. An infinitely omnipotent God became a helpless baby. What humility! What love!

But also, have you ever wondered about the purpose of the incarnation? Why did God become a man? The book of Hebrews gives us some insight on this. In Hebrews 2:9, the author says,

“9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

First, Jesus became a human that he might taste death for everyone. This is the first reason: God the Son had to become a man in order to taste death. If God was to die for the sins of mankind, he first needed to be able to die. The Trinitarian God cannot die. But humans can. And so, the eternal God became a man that he might become defeated, and die.

Of course, this is quite obvious. But then we must ask: why did God need to die? Why did the unkillable God need to die for the world? Hebrews 2:14-15 tells us why:

“14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”

Second, the eternal God came and clothed himself in killable human flesh that he might die, and not only die, but supernaturally overcome death and the evil one. Ever since sin entered into the world because of sin, humanity has become subject to death and separation from God, and is now under the dominion of the devil (2 Cor 4:4, Eph 2:1-10). There is no human that is not overtaken by this curse. And because of this, there is no mere human that can wrestle with death and Satan and overtake them. No, we need a human that has not been affected by the curse, so that he might overtake the power of the curse. And this happened in Jesus’ supernatural conception.

Luke says that he was conceived of the Holy Spirit that he might be born holy (Luke 1:35). Jesus was not born of the stock of Adam, of the sinful seed, but rather, God the Son was conceived by the holy and supernatural power of the Spirit. And because of this Jesus was born without sin, without the threat of the curse, out from under Satan’s thumb, and without the punishment of death. And yet, he died still, and three days later defeated Satan and death by his infinite power. It’s because of this that Paul says Jesus was the firstborn from the dead (Col 1:18), the first to raise from death, overcoming it and leaving it powerless. So Jesus was incarnate that he might be able to die, and having died, supernaturally overcome the Satan and the curse.

Lastly, Jesus was incarnate that he might eternally and sufficiently atone for the sins of mankind. Hebrews 10:11-14 says,

“11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”

This passage gives the last and final purpose of Christ’s incarnation, which is to provide final and eternal atonement. In the Mosaic Covenant, the priests had to repeatedly offer the sacrifices of goats and bulls. Every time Israel sinned, they had to kill an animal. And the reason for the multitude of sacrifices is because “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4). And why is it impossible? Because bulls and goats are not sufficient. First of all, they are not human. And second of all, they are not perfect. For something to be able to atone perfectly and eternally, it needs to a be a suitable substitute, and it needs to be a spotless one.

Think about it. The concept behind the sacrifices was this: instead of the sinner receiving the penalty for sin, a bull or goat would receive the penalty. But humans are not bulls or goats. For this reason, they are not suitable substitutes. For someone to truly and finally take away our sins, we need a human to die in our place. That is why Hebrews says that, “since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, [Christ] likewise partook in the same things” (Heb 2:14). Christ partook in the same nature that he might substitute himself for us.

But also, we need a human who is eternally perfect and sinless in order for it to be a sufficient sacrifice. A sinful man cannot atone for the sins of another sinful man. We need a perfect man. But not only a perfect man; we need a man that is eternally perfect, one that that can remove our sins for all time. Only the God-man can do that. Only a preexistent and holy God-man can do that.

And so, when Jesus was born in that manger, taking on the a human nature, he did it for the very purpose of dying, overcoming death, and atoning eternally for the sins of mankind. This is what we should meditate on when we think about Christmas. An eternal God becoming man that he might become spurned, destroyed, and victorious over our sins. Have you ever thought of this?