The Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ: The Miracle of Christmas

jesus-in-the-manger

THE VIRGIN BIRTH OF JESUS CHRIST:

THE MIRACLE OF CHRISTMAS

Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us (Matthew 1:23).

This verse is a familiar passage cited around Christmas time, and it sets forth the heart of the Christmas message: the birth of the virgin born Child, who is God come into the world. It reveals the truth of the Incarnation (enfleshment), not God became a man (God cannot change His nature), but to be more theologically accurate, God the Son added a human nature to His divine nature. The eternal, co-equal, creator, God, “the Word (John 1:1-3) was made flesh,[1] and dwelt among us” (v. 14). “God was manifest in the flesh” (1 Timothy 3:16). The little Christmas baby was a Theanthropic Person, a God-man, deity and humanity united forever. To save fallen man Jesus had to be both God and man. Anything short of this would not avail.

Jesus was God of very God, and man of very man. Though the Son eternally preexisted, Jesus had a human birth. He had a human lineage that went back to Adam through David and Abraham (Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38). He is the Son of David, “the seed of David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3).

  1. The virgin bearing.

Was Jesus born of a virgin? Yes! The method of Incarnation was the Virgin Birth. The virgin birth was both prophesied in the OT (Isaiah 7:14) and fulfilled in NT history (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-35). Though skeptics have declared it impossible and a myth, it has been believed as a part of the Rule of Faith from the beginning of Christianity. The Apostles’ Creed, that goes back to the 5th century but had its basis in an ancient Old Roman Creed (2nd century), states that Jesus Christ was “conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.” It is also mentioned as a belief of the Church by Ignatius (martyred, c. AD 100), Justin Martyr (born, AD 100), and Irenaeus (2nd century). But for Bible believers it is sufficient to know that the virgin birth is a truth of Scripture. The biblical witness is clear.

  1. Matthew’s word. Chapter one of Mathew gives the genealogy of the Messiah-King Jesus, which after a long string of “begats,” concludes with, “And Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (v. 16).   Jesus was not begotten of Joseph, but born of Mary (“the seed of the woman,” Genesis 3:15, “made of a woman,” Galatians 4:4). The relative pronoun “whom” is feminine.[2]

Verse 18 states Mary and Joseph were espoused, and “before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” So the child was not Joseph’s or any man’s. To calm Joseph’s apprehensions and to inform him of the divine plan an angel revealed to him, “that which was conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost” (v. 20). He further informed him that the child would fulfill God’s salvation purpose:

And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins (v. 21).

Jesus (Iēsous) is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew name, Joshua (Yehôshua‘), that means, “Jehovah’s salvation.”

All this was prophesied in Isaiah 7:14, which Matthew quotes (v. 23) from the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint, LXX): “The virgin[3] will be pregnant and give birth to a son” (AT).[4] Joseph submitted to the will of God and proceeded with the marriage (v. 24), but she was a virgin when she conceived and a virgin when she gave birth, and she was still a virgin until she and Joseph consummated their marriage after Jesus was born (v. 24).[5]

  1. Luke’s witness. Luke 1:26-32 gives the background for what we find in Matthew 1. Gabriel (probably the same angel sent to Joseph) was sent to a “virgin” (parthenos, v. 27, found 2x) to reveal God’s wonderful purpose for her. She was “highly favored” (graced) by God (vv. 28, 30).[6] Mary is to give birth to the King who will fulfill the Davidic Covenant (vv. 31-33; cf., 2 Samuel 7:16). Surely God’s sovereign grace is seen in His condescending to choose this insignificant young girl (possibly around 13) from an insignificant family in an insignificant village to be the vehicle of the Incarnation. She acknowledges as much in her beautiful Magnificat (vv. 46-55).

She will “conceive” and “bring forth a son” to be named “JESUS” (v. 31). She asks how this could be possible since she was a virgin: “seeing I know not a man” (v. 34). The “how” is given by Gabriel:

And the angel answered and said unto her, the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God (v. 35).

It will be a supernatural conception and birth by the omnipotent power of the Holy Spirit. “That holy thing which shall be born” is an idiom, meaning, “the child that shall be born.”[7] This would certainly happen, because “with God nothing shall be impossible” (v. 37).

Because it was supernatural and miraculous we have to accept the reality of mystery in the whole matter. The Holy Spirit would have to have created that which a father would provide for a human birth. Male chromosomes would have to be supplied. A miraculous work would have to have been done on the DNA level. Erickson comments on this point:

The virgin birth means different things to different theologians. What we are speaking of here is really the “virginal conception.” By this we mean that Jesus’ conception in the womb of Mary was not the result of sexual relationship. Mary was a virgin at the time of the conception, and continued so up to the point of birth, for the Scripture indicates that Joseph did not have sexual intercourse with her until after the birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:25). Mary became pregnant through a supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit upon her, but that does not mean that Jesus was the result of copulation between God and Mary. It also does not mean that there was not a normal birth. Some theologians, particularly Catholics, interpret the virgin birth as meaning that Jesus was not born in normal fashion. In their view, he simply passed through the wall of Mary’s uterus instead of being delivered through the normal birth canal, so that Mary’s hymen was not ruptured. Thus, there was a sort of miraculous Caesarean section.[8]

Mary submitted in obedient faith and courage: “And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word” (v. 38). Later her cousin Elizabeth confessed that the virgin birth was an act of faith: “And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord” (v. 45; cf., Romans 10:17).

In summation, there can be no doubt that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke reveal that Mary was a virgin (parthenos, Matthew 1:23; Luke 1:27, 2x), a young woman who never had sexual relations with any man, including Joseph (Matthew 1:18, 25; Luke 1:34), but who conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18, 20; Luke 1:35) and gave birth to a son, named Jesus.

  1. The Virgin Birth.
  1. The prophesied birth. Matthew cites the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 as being fulfilled in the virgin birth of Jesus (1:22-23):

Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name, Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

The prophecy is found in that part of Isaiah called the “Book of Immanuel” (chs. 7-12, cf., 7:14; 8:8, 10). The historical setting was an alliance of the kings of Israel and Syria that posed a threat to Judah (vv. 1-2) and the Davidic throne (v. 6). Isaiah was sent with his firstborn son to king Ahaz to exhort him to trust the LORD for deliverance (vv. 3-9), even to challenging him to ask for a carte blanche sign (vv. 10-11). God had a covenant purpose to preserve the Davidic dynasty. Ahaz responded in hypocritical unbelief (v. 12). He had no concern for God’s redemptive program.

The Lord (Adonay), the sovereign Ruler, responded to “the house of David” (v. 13) with His own sign, the coming of “the virgin [‘almah] who will conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (v. 14).

The problems proposed for a messianic interpretation of this passage include the meaning of ‘almah, said to be “young woman,” whereas the word bethulah means “virgin,” and the context that follows (vv. 15-16), which appears to put the birth of the child before the coming Assyrian invasion, making the birth of a virgin born child seven centuries later seem irrelevant.   Many conservative scholars opt for a dual fulfillment: one with a young woman, a virgin, who will marry and have a child (by natural processes), who will be a sign of the soon destruction of the Israel-Syrian kingdoms and the type of a future fulfillment in Christ, who will have a virginal conception and birth.

There has been a running controversy for centuries over the Hebrew word ‘almah, translated, “virgin,” in Isaiah 7:14. Jewish and liberal scholars (and some conservative) claim it only means “a young woman.” It appears to have meant in biblical times “a young woman, one of whose characteristics is virginity.”[9]   There is no evidence that ‘almah ever means a married woman.

There is no instance where it can be proved that ‘almah, designates a young woman who is not a virgin. The fact of virginity is obvious in Gen. 24:43 where ‘almah is used of one who was being sought as a bride for Isaac. Also obvious is Ex. 2:8. Song 6:8 refers to three types of women, two of whom are called queens and concubines. It could be only reasonable to understand the name of the third group, for which the plural of ‘almah is used, as meaning “virgins.”[10]

That the translation of ‘almah as “virgin” is correct is seen by the fact that the pre-Christian Jewish translators (3rd century BC) of the Septuagint used the Greek word for “virgin,” parthenos, in Isaiah 7:14, and Matthew quotes it by Holy Spirit inspiration (writing to Jews) in 1:23. There is no debate, parthenos in Greek means virgin.

Bethulah would not fit in Isaiah 7:14, because it does not always mean an unmarried woman.   In Joel 1:8 it refers to a married woman. ‘Almah in Hebrew in OT times meant a “young virgin.”

The offer of a “sign” to Ahaz in 7:11 is one of an extraordinary miracle. A young woman having a child is not anything extraordinary or miraculous. A virgin birth is!

Verses 15-16 denote the upbringing of the child as a time indicator, referring to the soon removal of the Israel-Syrian threat, but not that the virgin born child would be there shortly. Isaiah 8:1-4 sees Isaiah’s son, Maher-shal-al-hash-paz, as such a time indicator. “Butter and honey” point to scarcity of food (v. 22). The passage reveals that Judah will be in decline and need until the Messiah comes. Thus, as Reymond states:

It is not the time between the giving of the sign and its fulfillment that should be made the basis of relevance for Ahaz’s day; rather, it is the time between the birth of the miraculous child and his coming to the age of discernment that makes the prophecy relevant to Ahaz’s day.[11]

Against a dual fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 is the fact that both the prophecy and fulfillment speak of the virgin as conceiving and giving birth to a child. In a natural birth you may have a virgin to start with, but when she becomes pregnant she is no longer a virgin, nor will she be when she gives birth. The accounts of Matthew and Luke equate virginity with “not coming together” and not “knowing a man” (Matthew 1:18, 24; Luke 1:34). Matthew 1:23 has the virgin as the subject of both “be pregnant” and “give birth,” and v. 24 states that Joseph “knew her not till she brought forth” Jesus, thus Mary never ceased to be a virgin throughout the whole process. So the dual fulfillment view has one girl who ceases to be a virgin at conception while Mary does not. The first is not a virginal conception while Mary’s is. A prophecy cannot have two opposite fulfillments.

  1. The promised Son. The hope of the passage is that the Davidic dynasty will survive. Note the promises concerning the child that are revealed in Isaiah’s day (7:14; 9:6-7; 11:1-2). This includes Isaiah’ contemporary, Micah (sometimes called the “Little Isaiah”). See Micah 5:2.       Note that the second prophecy Matthew records is Micah 5:2 (Matthew 2:5-6). We note too that these prophecies speak of the child born, the Son given (Isaiah 9:6), who is “God with us” (7:14), “the Mighty God (9:6), the ruling Davidic King (9:7), and the “ruler in Israel, whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2).

III. The virgin Born.

What is the real significant of the virgin birth? What is its importance, and what are its implications for us?

  1. The importance of the virgin birth. We’ve noted already that the virgin birth was the vehicle of the Incarnation. By means of the virgin birth the Son of God became a God-man, truly God and truly man. Reymond comments:

When we then penetrate to the mysterious and marvelous primary purpose of the Christmas miracle, I think we must conclude that both Evangelists intend that we should understand before everything else that it was by means of the virginal conception, that the [pre-existent] Word became flesh (John 1:14)! Mary’s virginal conception, in other words, was the means by which God became man, the means whereby he who “was rich for our sakes became poor, that through his poverty, we might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). It is the Bible’s answer to the question which naturally arises in the minds of men as soon as they learn that Jesus Christ is both God and man: “How did this occur?” The virginal conception is the effecting means of the “Immanuel event” (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:22-23) which made God man with us without uniting the Son of God to a second (human) person which would have surely been the effect of a natural generation. But by means of Mary’s virginal conception, God the Son, without ceasing to be what he is―the eternal Son and Word of God―took into union with his divine nature in his divine person our human nature (not a human person) and so came to be “with us” as “Immanuel.”[12]

Theologians have theorized whether God could have been incarnated some other way, such as through a normal birth with two parents. We are not wise enough to “second guess” God, so it is best to accept the fact that the way He does something is the best way it could be done, and possibly the only way it could be done. When we think of the factors involved in the Incarnation and its relation to the plan of salvation, we see the wisdom of our God in the truth of the virgin birth.

God has produced men in four ways: (1) without a man or woman―Adam; (2) by a man without a woman―Eve; (3) by a man and a woman―the rest of us; and (4) by a woman without a man―Jesus. In the first three we have God producing a new human person. In the fourth we have a pre-existing person coming into the human race. This is unique:

The virgin birth gives the only reasonable explanation of the incarnation of God’s
Son in human flesh. The natural result of human procreation is ordinarily the beginning of a new person. But Christ did not get personhood from two parents. He was a person before he was born. There was therefore no need of the ordinary procreative process to bring into existence a new person. Such a person would have been out of the question. Employment of the ordinary procreative process would have required a special miracle to avoid a dual personality.[13]

  1. The implications of the virgin birth. We must qualify the above by noting that when Jesus took upon Himself a human nature He consequently had a human personality. The human mind, emotions and will were submissive to the divine. He was not God walking around in a man’s body. He had a complete human nature, body and soul/spirit, as well as a complete divine nature, by which we mean all the attributes of deity. Paul expresses it this way in Colossians 2:9: “In him [Christ] is permanently at home all the sum total of the attributes of God in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9, AT).

We must clarify at this point what at times has been a misinterpretation. When, for instance, Gabriel tells Mary that the child she is to conceive and give birth to “shall be called the Son of the Highest” (Luke 1:32) and “the Son of God” (v. 35) it is “because the origin of his human nature is directly traceable to a paternal act on the part of God. In other words, it is suggested that with respect to Jesus’ humanity, while Mary was to be his mother, God was to be his “Father,” and accordingly Jesus was to be “the Son of God.”[14] This view uses these verses to teach a “nativistic” Sonship.

These titles do not speak of a nativistic Sonship but the Trinitarian relationship the eternal Son, the second person of the godhead, has with the first person, the Father. “Son of God” refers to the deity of Christ, as can be seen by the Jews’ reactions to His use of the title, accusing Him of making Himself equal with God and of blasphemy (Matthew 26:63-66; Mark 14:61-64; Luke 22:69-71; John 10:30-38; 19:7; cf., John 5:17-18). In fact, the title Father is not found in these passages used to teach a nativistic Sonship. Can we say the Holy Spirit is the father of Jesus’ humanity? No! Reymond cites Kanzer’s response with emphasis: “Jesus Christ is not the Son of the Holy Spirit as to his humanity. Rather, Jesus Christ, with respect to his humanity, had no father. We have here no mythological mating of a divine being with a human mother.”[15]

So “Son of the Highest” and “Son of God” mean that Mary’s virgin conceived and born child will be so titled because He is God as well as man. Thus the Incarnation is the result of the virgin birth. This is seen when Mary goes to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who had been supernaturally delivered from barrenness and was carrying John the Baptist in her womb. When Mary greets Elizabeth the baby leaps in Elizabeth’s womb (Luke 1:40-41). It is said that this is the first witness of the forerunner to Jesus (1:13-17).. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit an begins to speak by inspiration, saying,

Blessed art thou among women, and blessed in the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (vv. 42-43).

A check of the use of the titleLord” in the context points to the word used here by Elizabeth as referring to Jehovah God (Malachi 3:1; 4:5). Thus Elizabeth calls Mary “the mother of her Lord,” i.e., “mother of God,” not the origin of deity (this should be plain to all, no one gave birth to God), but the mother of Jesus who is God manifest in the flesh.

Thus via the virgin birth Jesus, the Son of God, had a human nature in union with His divine nature. Both were united in one divine person. The Trinity is defined as three persons in one nature, or essence: three WHOS in one WHAT. An Orthodox Christology will have one person with two natures: one WHO with two WHATS. However, there is still a problem with the Word becoming flesh. Man is a fallen creature, with a human nature corrupted by sin (Psalms 51: 5; 53:1-3; 58:3; John 3:6a; Romans 5:12). How could Jesus escape original sin, if He was born into this race?

That Jesus was born of a virgin is essential to the Christian faith and our salvation. If Jesus had been born as all other men are, he would have been a part of the race represented by Adam and would have received Adam’s imputed sin and would also have been a sinner by nature and could not, therefore, have been a sinless, spotless sacrifice for our sins (1 Peter 1:18-19). Being born of Mary He had a complete human nature, thus identified with humanity as the last Adam, yet sanctified from Adamic corruption by the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35): “The child to be born shall be called [or, be] holy, the Son of God.” Or it can also be translated: “The holy child to be born shall be called the Son of God.” Either way, He is holy!

It should be evident that Christ was not God because of the Incarnation, but He became the God-man by means of the virgin birth. Likewise, Jesus was not impeccable (unable to sin) because of the virgin birth (the Holy Sprit’s sanctifying preserved Him from the race’s corruption), but He was impeccable because He is the Son of God. A wire can be bent easily with a minimum force, but welded to a rod of steel, the wire cannot be bent, because the rod of steel cannot be bent. So, His human nature united to His divine nature means it is it impossible for our Lord Jesus Christ to sin. He was an unblemished sacrifice, that put away our sins forever:

For such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens; Who needed not, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the people’s: for this he did once, when he offered up himself (Hebrews 7:26-27).

For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The virgin birth draws attention to the Incarnation, for “a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (Matthew 1:23). It testifies of his deity, for “that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). And it also points to his redemptive work, for Joseph was told of Mary that “she shall bring forth a son, and . . . shall call his name JESUS, for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

End Notes

[1] John 1:14: kai ho logos sarx egeneto, kai eskēnōsen en hēmin, reads literally: “and the Word flesh became, and tabernacled among us.” “Flesh” (sarx) here refers to “human nature.” “Dwelt” translates the verb skēnoō, “to live in a tent, to tabernacle.” Thus the One of whom it is said in v. 1c, kai theos ēn ho logos, “and deity was the Word,” in v. 14 took upon Himself a human nature. The anarthrous (no article) preverbal predicate nominatives, theos (God, v. 1c) and sarx (flesh, v. 14) are qualitative, telling us that the divine person with a divine nature took upon Himself a human nature.

[2] It is the genitive, feminine, singular, relative pronoun, hēs, “of whom,” its antecedent being Marias.

[3] parthenos is articular in both the Greek OT and the Hebrew (hā‘almah), “the virgin.” Some think it is pointing to the woman of Genesis 3:15. Others believe the article is generic, this one kind of woman , a virgin, is meant. In English it would be expressed with an indefinite, “a virgin,” in contrast to any other.

[4] AT, Author’s Translation.

[5]And [Joseph] knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS” (v. 25).  There is no basis in the NT for the teaching of the perpetual virginity of Mary. It is plain that Joseph knew her sexually after Jesus was born, and the Gospels reveal they had four sons and at least two daughters after this (Matthew 13:55-56). The exaltation of virginity and celibacy as a holier state than marriage is based on Greek ethical dualism, not biblical truth. “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled” (Hebrews 13:4). Jesus was raised in a family with a godly step-father and mother.

[6]Highly favoured” is kecharitōmenē, the perfect, passive, participle of charitoō, “to be graced, highly favored.” It is the same verb in Ephesians 1:6, (“accepted”). Mary gave birth to God’s “beloved Son,” and now, through His redemptive cross work, every believer is “graced in the Beloved One.” “Favour” in v. 30 is charis, “grace.” As in all of God’s saving works human merit is not considered.

[7] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 531, n. 3. The neuter participle, to gennōmenon is a categorical neuter, as we find in 1 John 5:4, “whatsoever is born of God” (pan to gegennēmenon ek tou theou).

[8] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, One-volume Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 742.

[9] Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Walke, eds. (Chicago: Moody Press,1980), s.v. ‘lm, by Allan A. MacRae; 2:672.

[10] Ibid., p. 672. Psalms 68:25 (“damsels”); 46:1 and 1 Chronicles 15:20 have ‘alamoth (plural) in the superscripts as a musical term. Suggestions have been “singers,” “players,” “sopranos,” a virgin choir (?).

[11] Robert L. Reymond, Jesus Divine Messiah: The New and Old Testament Witness (Fearn, Tain, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications/Mentor, 2003), 104.

[12] Reymond, Jesus Divine Messiah, p.290.

[13] Alva J. McClain, cited by Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical (Christian Focus/Mentor, 2005), 481.

[14] Reymond, Jesus Divine Messiah, p. 291.

[15] Kenneth S. Kantzer, “The Miracle of Christmas” in Christianity Today 28 (December 14, 1984):15; cited by Reymond, Jesus Divine Messiah, p. 293, n. 17. It is common interpretation of secular skeptics that the Christian doctrine of the virgin birth is their version that parallels the pagan myths of gods co-inhabiting with human woman, producing other gods, demigods, self-deifying ruler, etc. These sordid tales of fornicating gods and humans, a “cosmic soap opera,” is a far cry from the presentation of the virgin birth in the NT. The Jewishness of the Gospel accours rules out these pagan notions.

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