We are talking about the wonder of human beings in the womb, and the moral question of whether it is right to kill them before they are born. Until recently, there never has been any doubt in the mind of the Christian church that such killing is wrong. Among the earliest sources for Christian thinking outside the New Testament (the beginning of the second century), the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas both forbid abortion.
You shall do no murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not corrupt boys, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not deal in magic, you shall do no sorcery, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born. (Didache 2:2; cf. Epistle of Barnabas 19:5)
Why did the early church, and all succeeding generations of Christians, come to this conclusion—that it is forbidden to take the life of the unborn? We have already seen the root of this conviction: When a human life comes into existence something magnificent has0Ahappened9 4created in the image of God, to live forever.
God Gives, God Takes Away (Job 1:21)
Another pointer for the church was that the Bible says God has sovereign rights over birth and death. When Job’s children were killed by a wind that destroyed their house, Job fell on his face and worshipped God and said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). The Lord gave—they were conceived and born by God’s act—that’s his prerogative. The Lord took—that’s his prerogative. Not ours. So the church has always shrunk back from intruding on the rights of God. He gives; he takes. Birth and death are his to grant, not ours.
God Forms Persons (Psalm 139:13)
Another pointer was the profound conviction that what is happening in the womb is God’s unique and sacred person-forming work. Psalm 139:13 puts this in terms of God’s very hands-on work in the womb: “You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” This is God’ s doing. Not ours.=2 0It is his to make. And his to end. (See also Job 31:13-15.)
A Glimpse into the Womb (Luke 1)
But the pointer for the church that I wanted to focus on today is a glimpse into the womb that we get at several places in the Bible. Let’s look at Luke 1. The situation is that Elizabeth and Mary are both given a child in the womb. Both pregnancies are miraculous. Elizabeth because she is too old, and she had always been barren. She becomes pregnant with John the Baptist. And Mary, because she is a virgin. But the Holy Spirit comes upon her, and she becomes pregnant with Jesus, the Son of God, who would one day die for our sins and rise again.
Verse 24: “After these days [Zechariah’s] wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden.” Then in verse 26, Luke says, “In the sixth month [that is, the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy] the angel Gabriel was sent from Go d to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin.” So when Mary becomes pregnant Elizabeth is about 24 weeks along in her pregnancy.
Nothing Impossible with God
In verses 36-37, the angel says to Mary, to encourage her that her impossible pregnancy really can come true, “And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” So be encouraged, Mary, nothing is too hard for God. Witness the pregnancy of Elizabeth. O how often in these circumstances of pregnancy and infertility we need to be reminded, “Nothing will be impossible with God.” He gives, he takes, he provides in abundance, he sustains in loss.
When the angel had gone, and Mary knew what was happening to her, she made a beeline to Elizabeth. What a consultation this would be: two of the most important and impossible pregnancies in the world. Look at verses 39-44:
In those days Mary arose and w ent with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1:39-45)
Now, of course, none of this is being written with abortion in mind. That’s not the point. The point is: How did texts like these shape the way the church thought about the unborn? What were the assumptions here and the implications here?
Notice two things:
1. The Word Baby
First, the word baby=2 0in verses 41 and 44. Verse 41: “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Ma ry, the baby leaped in her womb.” Verse 44: “For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” That word baby is not a specialized word for the unborn. It has no connotations of “embryo” or “fetus.” It is the ordinary word for baby (Greek brefos). And what makes this crystal clear and significant is the way it’s used in Luke 2:16. Here in Luke 1, it refers to John the Baptist in the womb. In Luke 2, it refers to Jesus in the manger. Luke 2:16: “And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby (brefos) lying in a manger.” This is exactly the same word for baby.
What the Christian church has seen in this is that what the persons Jesus and John were outside the womb they were already inside the womb. Jesus was the God-man in Mary’s womb. When the Holy Spirit (according to Luke 1:35) caused Mary to be pregnant, she was not pregnant with anything less than the Son of God. The baby inside was the same as the baby outside.
Today science has only made that easier to believe, not harder. Ultrasound technology has given a stunning window on the womb that shows the unborn at eight weeks sucking his thumb, recoiling from pricking, responding to sound. All the organs are present, the brain is functioning, the heart is pumping, the liver is making blood cells, the kidneys are cleaning fluids, and there is a fingerprint. Yet virtually all abortions happen later in the pregnancy than this date.
2. Treated as a Person
The second thing to notice here in Luke 1 is the way the baby in Elizabeth’s womb responded to Mary who was carrying the Son of God. Verse 41: “When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb.” Then in verse 44, Elizabeth interprets that leap like this: “Behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” And Luke says that Elizabeth said this because she was filled with the Holy Spirit. Verses 41-42: “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed . . .” In other word s, the Holy Spirit prompted her to say that this leap of the baby in her womb was a leap of joy.
To increase the significance of that leap even more, consider what an angel said to Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah before his son was conceived. In Luke 1:14-15, the angel said, “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” So that leap is not only a leap of joy but a leap of Holy-Spirit-inspired joy.
Only Persons Are Filled with the Spirit
What shall we make of this? Never in the Bible is any animal said to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Never does the Bible say that a person’s arm or leg or kidney or skin is filled with the Spirit. Tissue is not filled with the Holy Spirit. Only persons are filled with the Spirit.
What Luke is doing—and he is doing20it as the spokesman of Christ—is treating this child in the womb as a person. He uses the word baby which he later uses for Jesus in the manger. He uses the word joy, which is what persons feel. He uses the phrase “filled with the Spirit” which is what God does to persons. He simply assumes he is dealing with a human person in the womb. And therefore so should we.
Amazed at the Gift of Children
The beginning of human life is a magnificent thing. It is the work of God. It is the forming of a human person in God’s own image who will live forever. Let there be at Bethlehem and beyond, a joyful and grateful reverence for the gift of human life from conception to eternity. Never cease to be amazed at the gift of life—the gift of children.
– John Piper