Scripture is quite clear that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. But what was the point? Why is this important?
“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” (Matthew 1:22–23).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
We learn from the scriptural narrative in several places that our Lord’s mother was a true virgin. In the gospel of Luke, we are told that the angel Gabriel was sent with a message to a virgin named Mary (Luke 1:27). She is called a virgin twice in that one verse (parthenos). When the angel tells her that she will conceive a child who will have a never-ending kingdom, she asks a most reasonable question. How can she conceive when she does not know a man (Luke 1:34)? In short, how can she become a mother as she is a virgin? Gabriel replies that the thing will happen as the result of a miracle wrought by the Holy Ghost (Luke 1:35).
In our text, when Joseph found out that Mary was “with child,” he drew the natural and obvious conclusion, which was that Mary must not be a virgin. But because he was a righteous man, resolved to put her away quietly. But an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him not to be afraid to marry her because her pregnancy was the result of a miracle. The name to be given to the child was Jesus, because He was going to save His people from their sins. Remember this. And then the thing is summed up by our text. The prophet Isaiah had predicted this when he prophesied that a virgin would conceive a child, and bear a son, and that son would be called Emmanuel. Matthew adds the gloss that Emmanuel means “God with us.”
YOUNG WOMAN OR VIRGIN?
The prophecy is found in Isaiah 7, and the context is this. In the days of Ahaz, the king of Syria and the king of the northern kingdom of Israel came up against Jerusalem. They could not prevail against the city (Is. 7:1), but the heart of the king was still badly shaken, along with the hearts of the people (Is. 7: 2). They trembled like trees in a stiff wind. But God in His kindness sent the prophet Isaiah to give a word of encouragement to the king (Is. 7:3-9). Within one lifetime, the powers that the king was so worried about would be out of the picture. Don’t worry about them. Ahaz—not a man of faith—was apparently still troubled, and so God graciously tells him to ask for a sign (Is. 7:10-11). But Ahaz still holds back (Is 7:12), although he made it sound pious. And so Isaiah insists upon giving him a sign anyway, and the words of our prophecy are taken from that sign (Is. 7:14-16).
There are two layers to this sign. In the Hebrew, the word for virgin here is almah, which can mean virgin, but it can also mean young woman. The meaning is not exclusively virgin. A young woman will conceive and bear a son, and before that son has grown to the maturity that can refuse evil and choose evil—within just a few years—the kings that Ahaz was so worried about would no longer a threat. That was the sign. The young woman concerned was herself a prophetess (Is. 8:3), and she was married to Isaiah. And the prophet went to the prophetess, and she conceived a son. His name was Mahershalalhashbaz, and the prophecy of the previous chapter was in the first instance fulfilled in him (Is. 8:4). Damascus and Samaria would be a spent force before young Maher (let us call him) could say mama or papa.
PROPHECY & TYPE
So this was an explicit prophecy, for the benefit of Ahaz, but it was also a type . . . for the benefit of all the sons of men. Let us not be like Ahaz, and disbelieve the sign. In addition to being the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prediction, the prophetess was also a type. She was a type of Mary, and Mary was the antitype. And here is where it gets interesting.
Isaiah’s ministry was around 700 B.C. The Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek, was translated several centuries before Christ. And in the LXX, the word almah in Isaiah 7:14 is rendered as parthenos, and parthenos means virgin, only virgin, and nothing but virgin. There was therefore a widespread expectation among the Jews that there was an aspect of this prophecy that was yet to be fulfilled, and that expectation was not the result of interactions with Christians—because they would not arrive for a century or two more.
WHY HIS NAME WAS EMMANUEL
Everything in the gospel comes down to the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Who was this Jesus, and what did this Jesus do? He was God in the flesh, and He died on the cross as a perfect atoning sacrifice for the sins of all His people. The person and work of Christ.
The virgin birth is important to the identity of Jesus. Our text in Matthew links the virgin birth to the fact that the one so born was going to be called Emmanuel. The sacrificial body of Christ had to be spotless in order for it to be any good as a sacrifice, as we shall see in a moment. But it also had to be spotless in order for the most holy Word of God to be united to it. How can a holy God become a true man without also becoming a false and sinful man. Because sin is passed down covenantally through the fathers, the problem was solved through the virgin birth.
WHY HIS NAME WAS JESUS
The angel of the Lord told Joseph in his dream that the baby was to be named Jesus. The reason for this is that He was going to save His people from their sins. Jesus means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.” But in order to accomplish that salvation, He had to be a sacrifice, He had to be a spotless sacrifice, and He had to be a representative sacrifice.
A sacrifice: “For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
A spotless sacrifice: “But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:19).
A representative sacrifice: “But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many” (Romans 5:15).
The birth of the baby Jesus was truly remarkable. In that day, on that day, your salvation and mine was born into the world.