Born of a Virgin
Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23
December 9, 2008
Christmas is an amazing time of year. Yesterday I ran across a statement that sums it up: “Isn’t it amazing that a baby born in a stable 2,000 years ago can cause traffic jams this week?”
I am thankful for this season. We Christians ought to enjoy Christmas more than anyone. Don’t be a Scrooge and grouch if others get carried away. Remember, it was our holiday first!
More that that, Christmas is the first great miracle of the Christian faith. In saying that, I am of course referring to the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ. It is a doctrine often taken for granted in our circles, yet from the very beginning there have been those who have doubted.
Black-Balling the Virgin Birth
Before we go on, a little historical perspective is in order. 80 years ago controversy over the Virgin Birth tore the Christian church apart. It ranked with the Resurrection and the Second Coming as one of the fundamentals of the faith. Liberals denied it, conservatives defended it.
Liberals called it an unnecessary and irrational doctrine. Harry Emerson Fosdick said, “Of course, I do not believe in the Virgin Birth … I do not know any intelligent minister who does.”
In case you wonder if such views have become outmoded, let me update you on the work of the Jesus Seminar. About 15 years ago a group of liberal scholars began meeting to try and determine the true words of Jesus. They voted on the sayings and teachings of Christ using colored balls. Black meant the statement was definitely not genuine, pink meant it probably was, red meant it definitely was genuine. Several years ago the Jesus Seminar black-balled the Virgin Birth as a legend that has no historical validity. The scholars decided that Mary must have had intercourse with Joseph or with some unknown person before she became pregnant with Jesus. W. Barnes Tatum from Greensboro College in North Carolina called the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth “theological fiction.”
One Short Step
While we may be tempted to laugh this off as the work of a few radical kooks, we ought to take this seriously. As Timothy George points out, behind the well-publicized Jesus Seminar stands an insidious theology that attacks the central truth of Christian faith–that God became a man in the Person of Jesus Christ. You see, it’s only a short step from denying the Virgin Birth to denying the deity of Jesus Christ. First you attack the birth, then you attack the baby. First the miracle, then the man. Once you deny his miraculous entrance into this world, it’s short work to deny his deity, or that he ever existed at all.
That’s the ultimate goal of the Jesus Seminar: To “demythologize” Jesus so that he is no longer the Son of God from heaven who came to earth as the God-Man to die for our sins. In fact, when those scholars are through, the Jesus of the Bible will be replaced by a pale imitation who is neither Savior nor Lord.
The Apostles Creed
Consider these ancient words from the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” They point to a fundamental fact of the Christian faith: That in Jesus Christ, God became one of us. The New Testament clearly declares that the Virgin Birth actually happened in time and space. Matthew and Luke both tell the story as sober, historical reality.
You can say it isn’t true if you want to. But you can’t deny that the Bible clearly teaches it. And you can’t deny that the early church believed it. Furthermore, this doctrine has always been considered one of the fundamental doctrines of the faith. It is something that all Christians have always believed.
With that as background, it’s time for an update on this doctrine. Can we still believe in the Virgin Birth?
I. Reasons to Doubt
Why does anyone doubt the Virgin Birth?
1. It’s a miracle
By definition miracles are beyond human explanation. They are hard to understand and even harder to believe. After 2000 years we, tend to forget how strange it must have been. Joseph didn’t understand at first. That’s why he intended to give Mary a private divorce. Evidently he assumed she had been unfaithful to him. It wasn’t until the angel informed him in a dream that he could accept the truth. But Mary didn’t understand either. Luke 1 makes it clear that she was completely baffled and even frightened by the Gabriel’s amazing announcement.
Furthermore, no one really knows how it happens. Gabriel uses very discreet, non-specific language to describe the actual conception. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1: 35).
The verb “overshadow” speaks of the direct, personal presence of God. The same verb is used in all three accounts of the Transfiguration to describe the cloud that enveloped Jesus, Moses and Elijah (and Peter, James, and John) on the mountain. From that cloud came a voice saying, “This is my Son,” even as Gabriel told Mary, “The holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”
Physically, how did the conception happen? Again, no one knows. Through some means unknown to us, during the “overshadowing” the Holy Spirit created within Mary’s womb the unborn (yet fully human and fully alive) Person of Jesus Christ.
It is a pure miracle of the highest order. No one can explain it or duplicate it. The Virgin Birth of Christ stands absolutely alone. Nothing can be compared to it because no other birth has been–or ever could be–like it.
2. It’s an unexplained miracle
Nowhere are we told exactly why Jesus was born this way. Could Jesus have been conceived through natural means if God had so desired? We simply don’t know the answer to that question. We know the Virgin Birth happened, but the Bible nowhere explicitly tells us why it had to happen that way. Theologians have offered many speculation, but we aren’t 100% certain.
3. It’s not mentioned outside of Matthew and Luke
Only two of the four gospels mention the Virgin Birth. It’s never explicitly mentioned in Acts or the letters of Paul or Peter or John. Nor is it mentioned as part of the evangelistic sermons recorded in the book of Acts. While there are certain texts that seem to imply the Virgin Birth (especially Galatians 4:4) and while it is certainly compatible with the picture of Jesus presented in John 1, it is never directly mentioned outside of Matthew 1 and Luke 1-3.
4. Stories of miraculous births in various ancient cultures
The Romans invented legends surrounding the births of various emperors. The Greeks concocted crude stories regarding their gods and heroes, including Hercules. Some have suggested that the Virgin Birth is simply a sanitized version of those ancient myths.
5. The message matters more than the details
This is the position of liberal Christianity as exemplified by the Jesus Seminar and by Harry Emerson Fosdick. Liberals believe that the early church simply made up the story of the Virgin Birth in order to enhance the uniqueness of Christ. They wanted to believe he was the Son of God so they created the legend of the his miraculous conception in order to prove he was more than a man.
Before going any further, let’s stop and ask what remains if you deny the Virgin Birth. You really only have two choices. First, you can say that Joseph was the real father of Jesus and that the Virgin Birth was invented to make Jesus seem divine. Or you can argue (as certain Jews did) that Mary had an illicit affair with a Roman solider named Panthera. Evidently this rumor had wide circulation in the early church during Jesus’ lifetime. There may even be a whiff of this despicable lie in the reply of the Jews to Jesus in John 8:42. When Jesus told them that they were children of the devil, they replied, “We are not illegitimate children,” which may be sly way of implying that Jesus himself was born of fornication. (It may also be implied by the comments in Mark 6:3).
But this lie has floated across the centuries and still find currency today in the evil minds of unbelievers and liberal apostates who still hate Jesus 2000 years after his birth.
If you deny the Virgin Birth, you still have to account for Jesus? Where did he come from? Whose son is he?
II. Reasons to Believe
Having stated the case for doubt and unbelief, let me now lay out the positive reasons to believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ.
1. It was universally believed by the Christian church for 1800 years
I have already quoted the Apostles’ Creed. But every other major Christian creed of the first 1800 years also contains the Virgin Birth. Outside of a very few heretical groups (such as the Ebionites in the early church), every branch of the Christian church has always affirmed the Virgin Birth. No Christian denomination even thought to question until the rise of scientific rationalism during the Enlightenment. Men such as Thomas Paine and the French philosopher Voltaire led the charge against the Virgin Birth. The fight continued during early years of this century and the Virgin Birth became a major flashpoint in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. Denominations split and new churches were formed in a dispute over whether this doctrine was essential to Christianity.
2. Every major branch of the Christian church still believes it
Evangelicals of every stripe believe in the Virgin Birth. The Catholic church strongly affirms this doctrine. So do the various Orthodox Churches. The only churches that don’t believe it are the denominations that have capitulated to liberalism and politically-correct theology.
We know that around the world the church is growing fastest in the third-world countries of Asia and Africa. Virtually 100% of those Christians believe in the Virgin Birth and would be shocked to hear anyone deny it. There are well over 1 billion Christians in the world today, nearly all of whom believe in the Virgin Birth. Since liberalism is a dead faith that has no power to attract others, we may safely say that outside of a few colleges and seminaries, few people pay attention to what the Jesus Seminar has to say.
3. The New Testament explicitly says Jesus was born of a virgin
Both Matthew 1 and Luke 1 clearly say that the conception of Jesus Christ took place while Mary was a virgin through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is not open to question. Those who posit some other explanation must do so at the expense of the plain meaning of the text. As one writer put it, “It is extremely difficult to make the terminology of the Virgin Birth refers to something other than the Virgin Birth.” I would simply change “extremely difficult” to “impossible.”
4. This agrees with the rest of the Bible
I have already stated that the only references to the Virgin Birth are found in Matthew and Luke. However, the Bible implies it in several other passages.
1. Genesis 3:15 says that the Messiah will be born of the “seed of the woman.” But women have no seed in themselves. That must come from the man. Such an unusual phrase has long been understood by Christian theologians as a early reference to the Virgin Birth.
2. Isaiah 7:14 clearly predicts that a virgin will conceive and bear a son called Immanuel. The angel who appears to Joseph in a dream quotes this passage as proof that the Virgin Birth is a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
3. John 1:14 says that the “Word became flesh,” which refers to the Incarnation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God in human flesh. While it does not demand a Virgin Birth, it certainly implies a supernatural entrance into the world.
4. I Timothy 3:16 summarizes Jesus’ birth by saying that he “appeared in a body,” which sounds like Jesus did not come into the world the usual way.
5. Galatians 4:4 states that Jesus was “born of a woman.” Indeed he was, but why use such a strange expression unless there was something unusual about his birth.
None of these verses (outside of Isaiah 7:14) explicitly mention the Virgin Birth but they are all perfectly compatible with it.
5. The Bible focuses on the baby, not on his birth
There is much left unsaid that we would like to know. The Bible tells us just enough to anchor our faith, but not enough to satisfy our curiosity. The important fact is who this baby is and why he came to the world and what he will accomplish on the earth. The miraculous conception of Christ lets us know that this is not some ordinary baby like any other baby.
Therefore, we are on solid historical and biblical ground when we assert our belief that Jesus was indeed conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. It is a thoroughly Christian doctrine that all true Christians have believed and still believe today.
III. What Does It Mean?
The final question concerns the meaning of the Virgin Birth for Christian faith today. Why is it important that we believe this truth? What does it teach about the true nature of Jesus Christ? And what are the implications of denying this truth?
1. It is a mystery
After all is said and done, we still don’t understand how it happened. We can no more explain the Virgin Birth than we can explain walking on water. It is a reversal of all known human processes. It is a direct miracle of God that can never be duplicated in any laboratory.
2. It is presented in the Bible as sober historical truth
Read it for yourself. Note that Luke ties the event down to certain specific historical indicators. The Virgin Birth happened during the reign of Caesar Augustus, when he issued a decree for a census of the entire Roman Empire. This census took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. See Luke 3:1-3. These are facts that can be checked and verified in secular history. Luke doesn’t say, “Once upon a time in a land faraway a young virgin gave birth …” No, this isn’t a fairy story or a bedtime story. This is the truth! It really happened exactly as the Bible says.
3. It fits with everything we know about Jesus
The Bible presents as being a fully human person. He was born like us, lived us, and died like us. Whatever it means to be truly human, that was true of him also. He was as much as man as any man who ever lived. He was not an alien or an angel or a half-man, half-God creature.
The Virgin Birth is, after all, a virgin birth. The miracle took place nine months earlier at the moment of conception. There was nothing mysterious about his delivery. He developed in the womb as all babies do, was delivered in the same way babies are delivered today, nursed at his mother’s breast just like babies today.
A Miraculous Beginning
But that is only one part of the story. He was also fully divine, fully God. That is why miracles marked his entrance and his exit from this world. Again and again we see him pulling back the gossamer curtain that separates us from the realm of God and the angels. He lived on the boundary between two worlds–the one we can see … and the one we can’t see.
He was hungry and thirsty … yet he fed the 5000.
He slept in the boat … yet he walked on water.
He wept at the tomb … then raised Lazarus from the dead.
He ate with Zaccheus … then healed blind Bartimaeus.
He died on Friday … then rose on Sunday.
The Two Sides of Jesus
It fits perfectly. He was born of a woman … he was born of a virgin.
He was just like us … He was nothing like us.
He walked among us … He came from God above.
He was the Son of Mary … He was the only-begotten Son of God.
He grew up in Nazareth … “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
He is our friend … He is our Savior.
He is the Man for all seasons … He is the Sovereign Lord.
Little children love him … He baffles the greatest minds.
He was called “son of Joseph” … He is indeed the “Son of God”
Read the Bible. See for yourself. Don’t take my word for it.
It is there again and again. The two sides of Jesus. The man like us . .. The Son of God from heaven.
He was like us in his birth … the Virgin Birth.
He was unlike us in his birth … the Virgin Birth.
If God Became a Man …
If God should decide to become a man, how would he choose to do it? There are many answers to that question, but I submit that this much is true: we would expect him to make an unusual entrance into this world.
–Becoming a man means he must be born.
–Yet because he is God, his birth must be miraculous
So we have … a miraculous conception … and a normal birth. Put them together and you get exactly what the Bible presents: A Virgin Birth!
That’s what I mean when I say that the Virgin Birth fits with everything we know about Jesus.
Before it happened, no one would have expected it. After it happened, we say, “Sure, that makes perfect sense.”
It’s just like God to think of something like the Virgin Birth!
Martin Luther’s Three Miracles
There is a miracle here which we may believe or we may deny. There is enough to believe for those who wish to believe. There is enough reason to doubt for those who care to doubt. Miracles are like that. They don’t force us to believe. They invite us to make our own decision.
Martin Luther once remarked that the Incarnation consisted of three miracles: “The first, that God became man; the second, that virgin was a mother, and the third, that the heart of man should believe it.”
If you say, “Miracles can’t happen,” then you will find some way to explain the Virgin Birth. And you won’t be the first person to do so. From the very beginning, some found the story too incredible, too mysterious.
I close with this comment. You are not a bad person if you doubt the Virgin Birth. God is not threatened by those who ask hard questions and reject easy answers. If you doubt the Virgin Birth, I’m not going to ask you to study the facts and make up your mind. Rather, I want you to go back and read the whole gospel story from beginning to end. Take Matthew, Mark, Luke or John and read it straight through. At that point, you’ll believe or you won’t.
We Didn’t Know Who You Was
The explanation of the birth is not in the birth; it’s in the baby!
What Child is this, who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping,
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet while shepherd’s watch are keeping?
Sweet little Jesus boy … we didn’t know who you was.
Find out who the baby is … and you will understand his birth. The Virgin Birth doesn’t explain who he is. Who he is explains the Virgin Birth.
How do you account for Jesus? Who is he? Answer that question and you’ll also have your answer about the Virgin Birth.
The Bottom Line
One final word. Can a person reject the Virgin Birth and still be a Christian? The answer is no. The Virgin Birth was never meant to stand alone. It is not a random truth plucked from thin air. God never says, “Pick and choose what you want to believe.” The story of Jesus is a seamless garment woven by the Holy Spirit. Take out his miraculous birth and you have ripped the whole garment to shreds.
Christianity is not just a collection of random truths, any one of which could be dropped with little harm. It is trueh, and truth is a whole. Consequently, a diminution at any point inevitably affects the rest, given enough time. When we begin to drop this doctrine or that doctrine, even though we cannot see at the time how it will affect the rest, it nevertheless does affect the rest.
History teaches us that when men begin to doubt the Virgin Birth, they do not stop there. One doubt leads to another until the Jesus they believe in is not the Jesus of the Bible. In truth, the Virgin Birth is no more miraculous than the Resurrection. They stand or fall together.
Do I understand it? No.
Do I believe it? Yes.
Why? Because the Bible teaches it and because it makes perfect sense.
Can we still believe in the Virgin Birth? We can and we must.
“Not Made By Man”
It’s Christmas, 1995, and I have good news for you.
We may have supreme confidence that the baby whose birth we celebrate is Immanuel–God with us. The Virgin Birth is a sign from God that he has entered the human race. God stooped low to be born in a manger. The baby Jesus is deity in diapers … a King in a cradle.
“Who is that in yonder stall? Crown him, Crown him Lord of all.”
No human process could have produced him. Hang a banner of Bethlehem with these four words: “Not made by man.”
On the human side, his mother is Mary . .. God with us.
On the divine side, his father is God … God with us.
The wisest scholars and the simplest believers bow before the manger of Bethlehem. Together they proclaim that the infant Jesus, born of a virgin and laid in swaddling clothes, is their Lord and Savior.
Immanuel … God with us … Joy to the world, the Lord is come!