Why the Virgin Birth Matters: “Conceived of the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary”
Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38
February 22, 2004 | Ray Pritchard
Let’s begin our study with two familiar verses of Scripture:
“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’” (Matthew 1:20).
“The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’” (Luke 1:35).
The first verse tells us what the angel said to Joseph to reassure him about Mary’s pregnancy. The second verse is part of what the angel Gabriel said to Mary when he announced that she would give birth to Jesus. Taken together, these verses form a fitting introduction to the next section of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ … who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” Here we come face to face with the Virgin Birth of Christ—a doctrine we tend not to think about except during December. But we are considering it today because the early Christians esteemed this truth so highly that they included it in the first Christian creed. Therefore, it must be of paramount importance as a foundational doctrine of our faith. Here are three simple statements about the Virgin Birth of Christ:
1) It is clearly taught in the Bible. Isaiah prophesied it 700 years before Christ’s birth. Matthew and Luke explicitly included it in their gospels.
2) It has been universally believed. This doctrine reaches across the various divisions of Christendom—Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical.
3) It has also been hotly debated. Until the last 150 years, few people challenged this teaching. With the rise of liberal Christianity, some theologians have attacked this doctrine as a fanciful superstition, or they have branded it a legend created to make Jesus seem divine, or they have said the church borrowed a pagan myth or a Jewish tradition, or they have declared that the silence of the New Testament outside of Matthew and Luke regarding the Virgin Birth must mean that either it doesn’t matter or it didn’t happen. If you go all the way back to the gospel accounts, you can find hints here and there that even in Jesus’ lifetime, there were rumors about his unusual parentage. Some people thought he was illegitimate. Others suggested an act of immorality. A pagan opponent of the early church said that Jesus was the result of a sexual encounter between Mary and a Roman soldier. That slander has been repeated across the generations down to the present day.
The Virgin Birth falls on one of the great fault lines of the Christian faith. It rests on the “great divide” that separates those who believe the Bible is God’s Word, and those who don’t. It separates those who believe in a supernatural Christ from those who believe he was just a good man, a moral teacher, a revolutionary, a prophet perhaps, but not the Son of God from heaven.
Because of the importance of this doctrine, it’s crucial that we state plainly what we believe about the birth of Christ. Christians make a claim for Jesus that cannot be made for any other person: His life did not begin with his birth or with his conception. Unlike every other human whose beginning can be traced to a specific moment in time, we declare that the true life of Jesus Christ had no beginning. Because he is eternal, he existed forever with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. This is an utterly supernatural claim that could not be made about anyone else. To help us think through the implications of this doctrine, here are three questions about the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ.
I. What Does This Mean?
What exactly do we mean when we say that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit” and “born of the virgin Mary?” We mean at least five things: First, Jesus was born by the direct action of God. It’s clear that no one was expecting anything like this. Joseph assumes the worst until the angel intervenes. And Mary is shocked and mystified by Gabriel’s words. The Jews in general had no conception of a baby born to a virgin who would deliver them. It happened because God willed it to happen—and for no other reason. God did it this way because he chose to do it this way. A virgin gives birth by the sovereign choice of Almighty God. There is no other explanation. Second, no man was involved in the process. Not Joseph. Not a Roman soldier. Not any other man. Third, Jesus had a human mother and no human father. Fourth, Jesus is thus fully human and fully divine. He is fully human because he comes forth from Mary’s womb. He is fully divine because he is conceived by the Holy Spirit. He is not half-human and half-divine. He is the God-man—one person possessing two natures, God incarnate in human flesh. Fifth, he is therefore without sin. Luke 1:35 calls him “the holy one,” meaning that he will be born without any taint of sin. He has no inherited sin from Adam, no sin nature, nothing in him that will cause him to sin. He is holy in the truest and deepest meaning of that term. There is no sin in him or about him.
Here is another way to state the same truth. In order for Christ to be our Savior, three conditions must be met:
1) He must be a man. An angel could not die for our sins. He must truly share our humanity.
2) He must be an infinite man. A mere mortal could not bear the infinite price that must be paid for our sins.
3) He must be an innocent man. A sinner could not die for the sins of others.
The Virgin Birth guarantees that our Lord fulfills all three conditions. Because he is born of Mary, he is fully human. Because he is conceived by the Holy Spirit, he is fully God. Because he is born holy, he is sinless in thought, word and deed. Thus he is fully qualified to be our Savior.
II. How Did It Happen?
The second question revolves around the process. What exactly took place when the Holy Spirit conceived the human life of Jesus Christ within Mary’s womb? How could the God who is without limits somehow “shrink himself” to become a microscopic speck inside Mary’s womb? The most honest answer is this: We don’t know because what happened was a pure miracle. By “pure miracle,” I mean it was a miracle of the highest order, to be compared with God saying, “Let there be light,” and light appearing out of the darkness. The virginal conception of Jesus was a direct creative miracle of God. That also means it is a mystery we will never fully understand. In these days of amazing technological advancement, we occasionally hear talk about science reproducing a “Virgin Birth” today. But no matter what the scientists may do in the field of genetic manipulation, cloning, parthenogenesis, or any other advanced research, you can take all the scientists from the best labs, and give them unlimited resources and a thousand years, and they will still be unable to duplicate the virginal conception of Christ. Only God himself could create a human life that is fully human and yet fully divine. Jesus Christ is truly God’s “one and only” Son. This is a miracle and a mystery that lies beyond the reach of science.
Luke 1:35 offers a hint of what happened when the angel says that the power of the Most High will “overshadow” Mary. That same verb was used in the Greek translation of Exodus 40:35, “Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” Psalm 91:4 uses the same word in a poetic image to describe God “covering” his people: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” These images give us some idea of what happened. God “overshadowed” Mary with his personal, intimate presence that completely surrounded her just as the cloud surrounded, covered and filled the tabernacle. And this “overshadowing” protected her from all harm. She was a virgin before her conception and after her conception. Only God could have done this.
Through the Virgin Birth, God became man without ceasing to be God. When I preached this on Sunday morning, I took off my suit coat and laid it on the choir rail. I told the people that my white shirt represented the deity of Jesus Christ. Then I asked the congregation: Do I have to wear my jacket in order to wear my shirt? The obvious answer is no. My shirt goes under my coat, but I can wear it with or without my coat. In the same way, Jesus was the Son of God from eternity past to eternity future. He was always the Son of God. When he was in the manger, he was the Son of God. When he walked on the Sea of Galilee, he was the Son of God. When he died on the cross, he was the Son of God. When he rose from the dead, he was the Son of God. When he went back to heaven, he was the Son of God. When he comes again, he will be the Son of God. Nothing can ever change his essential nature. He was and is and always will be the Son of God. Having said that, I then put my coat back on and told the people that it represented the human nature Christ assumed when he came to the earth. Then I asked, “Am I still wearing my white shirt?” Answer: Yes. This isn’t a magic trick and I’m not David Copperfield. But (and this is a crucial point) you can’t see the white shirt very easily because it is mostly covered by my coat. It’s still there—I never took it off—but when I wear my coat, it’s easy to miss. That explains why many people didn’t know who Jesus was. His humanity “obscured” his deity. They saw him wearing his “coat” of humanity and assumed that was all there was. But as John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” Christ, the living Word, “put on” humanity the same way I put on my coat before I came to church on Sunday morning. He was always God but he “added” humanity through the Virgin Birth.
III. What Difference Does It Make?
The major problem with a sermon like this may be that most of us already believe in the Virgin Birth. Even if we’ve never thought about it very much, we know we believe it because we hear about it every December. So it’s easy to put a sermon like this in the category of, “Nice but doesn’t matter.” That would be a huge mistake. We can be certain that the early Christians didn’t feel that way or they wouldn’t have included these phrases in the Creed. What difference does it make that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit,” and “born of the Virgin Mary?” Here are three implications for us to consider.
A. Biblical Authority
Since both Matthew and Luke explicitly teach the Virgin Birth, immediately we are faced with a major question: Will we believe what Scripture plainly teaches? For centuries few people asked that question, but starting 150 years ago, it became a major issue. The problem for us can be stated this way: Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus entered the world in a supernatural way—through a mighty miracle of God. Theses same writers tell us that Jesus’ earthly life came to a climax with another mighty miracle—his bodily resurrection from the dead. Regarding the latter, we all understand the significance of the Resurrection. Because he lives, we too shall live. His resurrection guarantees ours. But it’s not the same with the Virgin Birth. His supernatural birth doesn’t tell us anything about our physical birth. And since we’ve already been born, it’s easy to discount the Virgin Birth when we compare it to the Resurrection. But that is a major mistake. If you can’t believe the first miracle, how can you believe the last miracle? If you doubt the Virgin Birth, how can you be certain about the Resurrection? The Bible doesn’t present the life of Christ as a kind of “pick your miracle” cafeteria where you can pick this miracle and reject that one. The story of our Lord’s earthly life comes to us as a seamless whole. We either take it all or we reject it all. There is no suitable middle ground option. So the question becomes—do we believe the Bible or don’t we? At this point I’m happy to give thanks for that famous “theologian,” Mel Gibson. Last Monday night, during his interview with Diane Sawyer, he was asked if he believes every word of the Bible is true. He answered with an immediate and unequivocal yes. He said he believes every word of the Bible. Then he added, “You have to believe it all. Either you believe all of it or none of it.” God bless Mel Gibson. That’s one reason the Virgin Birth matters. It’s a question of biblical authority.
B. Jesus Christ
The Virgin Birth forces us to confront what we believe about Jesus Christ. Who is he? Where did he come from? At issue is the supernatural character of our Lord. Is he truly the Son of God from heaven? If you answer yes, you’ll have no problem with the Virgin Birth. If you answer no, you’ll have no reason to believe it. Is he just a prophet, or is he “more than a prophet?” Is he a great teacher and nothing more? Was he a martyr who died for his cause? Was he a revolutionary who never intended to start a religion? Is he a divine leader who came to teach us about God? Or is he God incarnate, the Lord of Glory, the Son of God, our Lord and our Savior? The Virgin Birth forces us off the fence about Jesus. It tells us that we can’t be neutral and we can’t say that the stories of his birth don’t matter. The fact that this is a miracle and a mystery doesn’t let us off the hook. Those with an anti-supernatural bias will have no use for the Virgin Birth, and they will explain it away. But those who believe in a supernatural Christ will find the Virgin Birth a mysterious miracle that, instead of destroying their faith, actually makes it stronger.
Allow me to repeat what I said earlier. Three conditions must be met in order for Jesus to be our Savior. He must be a man, he must be God, and he must be sinless. The Virgin Birth guarantees that all those conditions have been met. Thus there is a direct connection between the manger and the cross. In the next few days many people—millions, in fact—will watch Mel Gibson’s new movie, The Passion of the Christ. If you watch it, you will see images of the most graphic suffering you have ever seen. But as you view it, remember that without his Virgin Birth, his sufferings have no meaning. It is his birth that makes his death meaningful. If he is not who he said he was, then his death was the most tragic mistake in history. His birth establishes his true identity as the Son of God, the promised Messiah, and our Savior. Note that when the angel told Joseph that the baby Mary was carrying had been conceived by the Holy Spirit, in the very next breath he told Joseph to name him Jesus “for his shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:22). The angel connects his birth with his saving work on the cross. Thus the Virgin Birth matters greatly because it tells us plainly who Jesus is and lays the foundation for the great work he will accomplish on the cross.
Peter Lewis (The Glory of Christ, pp. 155-157) points out that by means of the Virgin Birth, Christ enters the world guiltless of the sin of Adam. He becomes the beginning of a new humanity—the restoration of the human race. Because he is born of Mary, he is truly human; because he is conceived of the Holy Spirit, he is free from the inherited guilt handed down from Adam. Thus he is fully able to stand in our place, taking our guilt, our shame, our punishment. He could pay for our sins precisely because he had no sin and no guilt of his own. He who knew no sin became sin for us that we might receive the righteousness of God through him (II Corinthians 5:21). This brings to the forefront Paul’s words in Romans 5:6, “At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” At the precise point of our weakness, Christ was strong. He succeeded where Adam (and all of Adam’s descendants) failed. We were so helpless that we could not do anything to save ourselves. The Virgin Birth teaches us that our salvation is entirely supernatural. When God wanted to save the world, he had to take the initiative to send his Son. We were helpless even to take the first step in the process of bringing Christ to the world. The Virgin Birth teaches us that salvation is entirely by grace. God does it all because we could not do any of it.
And the Virgin Birth reminds us that we all need a Savior. Today we may want a teacher or a leader or we may look to a pastor to guide us. But a day will come when only a Savior will do. When we face the moment of death, a prophet will not help us. When we stand at death’s door, we need a Savior to lead us safely through to the other side. A few years ago, Leif and Nancy Jonasen started attending Calvary. They served in AWANA and Sunday School, and Leif sang in the choir. Not quite two years ago, Leif was diagnosed with leukemia. The doctors told him up front that the disease might eventually take his life. The first time I visited him in the Elmhurst Hospital, we talked openly about the seriousness of his situation. He knew that he was fighting for his life. But he told me with a smile, “It’s a win-win situation for me. If I am cured, I win. If I die, I win because I go to be with Jesus.”
Over the next few months he underwent a grueling regimen of chemotherapy. The doctors basically backed up the truck and poured out everything they had in a desperate attempt to save his life. Later he endured a very difficult stem-cell transplant with cells donated by his brother who lives in Norway. His hair fell out, he lost weight, and he felt awful for many weeks at a time. There were moments when the nausea and sickness seemed overwhelming. We didn’t see him in church very often because of his treatments. But after the transplant, the leukemia went into remission, his hair began to grow again, and he came to church with Nancy as often as possible. Whenever I saw him, I would say, “Leif, it’s good to see you.” His reply was always the same. “It’s good to be seen.” And there was always a smile.
Two weeks ago he and Nancy were in church and I stopped to say hello to them. He seemed to be doing just fine. A week ago Thursday the doctor called with bad news. A blood test showed that the leukemia had returned. This was a very heavy blow. Even though they always knew it was a possibility, they hoped and prayed it would not happen. Last Sunday Leif was too sick to come to church, so he and Nancy watched the service over the Internet. They sat at their computer at home, worshiped with us, and listened as I preached on “Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” That night Leif became extremely sick and was taken to Elmhurst Hospital. On top of the leukemia, he developed a severe case of pneumonia. His condition deteriorated over the next 24 hours so the doctors put him on a ventilator and transferred him to Northwestern University Hospital in Chicago. On Thursday Nancy e-mailed me that his situation had become extremely critical. When Marlene and I arrived at his room in ICU, we found that he had been heavily sedated so they could treat him easier. After talking with Nancy for a few minutes, I took a Bible and stood next to Leif and began to talk to him as if he were wide-awake. I did that because I don’t believe that any medicine or any sickness can prevent the Lord’s Word from getting through to the Lord’s people. “Leif, this is Pastor Ray. I want to read some Scripture to you.” So I read Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” And John 14, “In my Father’s house are many mansions,” and II Corinthians 5, “Absent from the body, present with the Lord.” And Philippians 1, “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Finally I read those wonderful verses from I Thessalonians 4, “The dead in Christ shall rise first.” When I was finished, I prayed for Leif. My final words to him were, “We will see you again.”
On Friday night Nancy called with the news that he was down to the final few hours. On Saturday morning Marlene and I arrived at the hospital about 10:00 a.m. The family had gathered around Leif’s bed. They had been singing some of his favorite hymns. It was obvious that he had only a short time left. I read the last few verses of I Corinthians 15—”O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Each member of the family took turns saying goodbye. Every so often Nancy leaned down to whisper something to her beloved husband. A few minutes later they began to sing: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.” Then the last verse: “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, We’ve no less days to sing His praise, Than when we’ve first begun.” We all watched as his breathing slowed down. A few minutes later he breathed his last. A nurse came in and said, “He has passed.” I thought to myself, “She said more than she knew.” My friend Leif Jonasen has passed from death to life. He has passed from suffering and pain to a life of eternal joy. He has passed from the valley of the shadow of death into the personal presence of Jesus Christ. He has passed from this dark world into the light of eternal day. For Leif the worst is over. It only gets better from here.
I stood at the foot of his bed and said, “Absent from the body, present with the Lord.” Then I quoted a precious promise from lips of our Lord Jesus himself: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). My friend Leif was still in the bed, Nancy was looking right into my eyes, and I told her that after Jesus said those wonderful words, he asked an important question: “Do you believe this?” “Leif believed it. I believe it. Nancy, you believe it. We all believe what Jesus said. Therefore, we will not fear and we will not doubt. Leif is with the Lord now. And someday we will see him again.”
I tell you this story because it makes the truth very real to my heart. We all need a Savior sooner or later. When you face death, you don’t need a teacher—You need a Savior. When you have to cross the river of no return, a myth won’t help you—You need a Savior. Even a pastor can’t help you in that day. You need a Savior. Thank God, we have one. His name is Jesus Christ. He was there when Leif Jonasen needed him. He will be there when you need him too. Do you have a Savior? May God help you to trust in Jesus Christ. He’s the Savior we need. Amen.