The doctrine of the virgin birth does not so much show us Mary’s absence of a relationship to a man—although it does do that. This doctrine centrally points to her Son’s relationship to God. Jesus was born the normal way, but He was not conceived the normal way. This tells us something of His identity as the holy Son of the Most High God.
“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is. 7:14).
Summary of the Text
The text before us has a double meaning. King Ahaz, despite his resistance to it, was being given a word of reassurance by the prophet Isaiah. He was worried about an alliance between the Syrians and the northern kingdom of Israel. Isaiah tries to reassure him, and tells him that he can ask for any sign he pleases (vv. 10-11). Ahaz refuses to do so in a display of faux humility (v. 12), and so Isaiah gives him a unilateral, unasked-for sign.
The rising power of Assyria was a real problem. In 738, the king Tiglath-pileser started to move against Syria and Israel. Judah wanted to stay out of it, and so Syria and Israel tried to depose Ahaz in order to force Judah to join their coalition. That is what Ahaz was worried about. The sign being given to Ahaz was not the sign of a remarkable conception, but rather the sign of a remarkable fall of the nations he was so worried about, within a very short time frame. A woman would conceive, but before her child had grown to the age of ethical discretion, knowing to refuse evil and choose the good, the kings that Ahaz was so worried about would both be gone. Before that child got to the age of being able to eat solid food, this northern challenge to Ahaz would be removed. The woman is unnamed, but she was clearly known to both Isaiah and Ahaz—it could have been one of their respective wives, or some other woman known to them.
Young Woman or Virgin
The word used here for young woman is almah, which can mean young woman or virgin. The word does not require virginity, but it does allow for it. Now this creates a very interesting translation and hermeneutical issue for us. The Hebrew word is more general, and it refers to two women—one a virgin and the other not. The Greek word that is used to cite this passage in Matt. 1:23 is parthenos and this is a word that has only one meaning, virgin. It also means that as far as Matthew is concerned, the sign of the first woman, the one given as reassurance to Ahaz, has dropped out of the picture. Parthenos does not refer to her, but it does refer to Mary.
Matthew is saying that Isaiah was talking about Mary. The language of fulfillment here is very strong. Mary has turned up pregnant, and Joseph knows that he was not the father. He is contemplating divorce (Matt. 1:20), but an angel reassures him. Mary is pregnant, but still a virgin, and all of this was done in order to fulfill what Isaiah had said. Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled,accomplished, completed, filled, finished in the conception of Jesus, which is quite a different thing than the conception of Jesus being projected onto a verse in the Old Testament that looks like it might be talking about something in the ball park. Additional support for this approach, rejecting the idea that Matthew’s reading is simply special pleading, is the fact that the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, rendered this as parthenos also. Before the Christian doctrine of a virgin birth resulted in God-with-us, there was a Jewish doctrine of a virgin birth resulting in God- with-us.
It might be easy to assume that God was just performing random marvels so that everybody would know that Jesus was remarkable. Well, the point was to reinforce and demonstrate His remarkable identity, but it wasn’t just a random act of power.
“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” (Luke 1:35).
This is what Mary is told about how she will conceive. The Holy Ghost will come upon her. The power of the Most High will overshadow or cover her, with the result that the holy one born of her would be called Son of God. Jesus was born this way so that He could be a human being who was truly holy.
A Sinless Christ
We know from Scripture that Christ was sinless. He not only withstood the devil in the temptation in the wilderness, but He also remained sinless throughout the course of His entire life.
“For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). “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 Cor. 5:21). “Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth” (1 Pet. 2:22). “Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?” (John 8:46).
A virgin birth was necessary to produce a genuine human being who was at the same time not entailed in Adam’s sin. This apparently means that our covenantal participation in Adam’s rebellion is passed down through the human father. Men are the problem, as has been suspected from time to time. Not through any human ancestors who happened to be male, because Jesus had a grandfather on Mary’s side. Covenantal responsibility for sin is passed on through the human father.
This is the problem that Roman Catholics are trying (unnecessarily) to solve with their doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. This doctrine refers to Mary’s conception, not the conception of Jesus, and is trying to keep Jesus from being tainted with Mary’s sin. So their doctrine says that a miracle was performed so that Mary was born without original sin, thus making her a fit vessel to bear Jesus. But that is not how sin is passed down. We are not sinners because we were borne by a sinful mother. We are sinners because we were begotten by a sinful father.
A Savior Without Blemish
We have been saved because we have a Savior. But we need more than someone willing to be a Savior—we need someone qualified to be a Savior. That qualification has to be absolute purity. We are redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:19).