Podcast: Play in new window | Download
Last week we considered the meaning of the Incarnation. This week we will be considering another doctrine with a Christmas theme, and that is the biblical teaching about the virgin birth. You don’t need to be a Bible reader to know that the prophet Isaiah prophesied that a time would come when a virgin would conceive and bear a son. The passage has been included on countless Christmas cards, and so many non-believers of many stripes manage to get a dose of this doctrine just by opening their mail.
“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
Theological liberals like to point out that the word rendered as virgin here is the Hebrew word almah, which can mean virgin, but it can also be legitimately rendered as young woman. So then, the thinking goes, you conservatives ought to think about this a bit harder, and join the rest of us in the 21st century as soon as you are able. But centuries before Christ, when the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek by Jewish rabbis (seventy of them, according to tradition), the Greek word they chose to render this word almah was parthenos—and parthenos means virgin, as in, virgin. The famous Parthenon was a temple built in Athens to the virgin goddess Athena. With the use of this word, there is no wiggle room whatever.
So this means that centuries before there was any Christian agenda around to influence the story, the expectation among the Greek-speaking Jews (at a minimum) was that a virgin would conceive and bear a son. This is certainly how Matthew takes Isaiah’s words (Matt. 1:23). And Luke records the fact that Mary was a virgin as well (Luke 1:27), and Mary herself objects to the angel’s promise to her on the basis of it (Luke 1:34). So we know that the Bible teaches this doctrine. But does it matter, and if so, why?
This is not an incidental point—our salvation actually depends on it. In order to serve as a sin sacrifice for us, the Lord Jesus had to be a true human being, and the Lord Jesus had to be sinless. If He were not truly human, the sacrifice could not have been the work of our representative priest (Heb. 4:15). And if He were not entirely sinless, then like the Levitical priests, He would have had to make an offering for His own sin first. This means He would not have been in a position to die for ours (Heb. 7:27). He could not be the sacrifice for us unless He was a sacrificial victim entirely without blemish (1 Pet. 1:19). And so—for the sake of our salvation—it was necessary to find a man who was a true man, and yet who was without sin.
Where can you get one of those? So how can God fashion a true human being out of this existing human stock without that “new man” being corrupted from the outset? The Bible says that we are objects of wrath by nature (Eph. 2:3). So if Jesus was born into the human race in accord with the normal, natural process, He would have been an object of wrath also. So God needed to perform a supernatural act, but perform it with a true man-child. He did this through what we call the virgin birth.
Joseph, Begetter of Sinners
The Bible is clear that Jesus had a genuine human lineage, all the way back to Abraham (Matt. 1:1-16), who was himself descended from Adam. But the Bible is equally clear that Jesus never sinned (2 Cor. 5:21). The fact that He was sinless was obviously related to who His Father was (Luke 1:35), but also because of who his father wasn’t (Luke 3:23). The other sons of Joseph were sinners in need of forgiveness just like the rest of us. For example, James the Lord’s brother tells us to confess our sins to one another (Jas. 5:16), and then he goes on to tell us that Elijah had a nature “like ours,” including himself in this (Jas. 5:17). And earlier in the gospels, we even told what one of those sins was, the sin of unbelief (John 7:3-5). Joseph was father of one who became a great and godly man, a pillar in the church, but Joseph was not the father of a sinless man. If Jesus had been born to Joseph and Mary in the ordinary way, He could have been a great apostle—like His half-brother became—but He could not have been our Savior.
While we shouldn’t start speculating about the half-life of original sin, it seems clear from all this that sin is reckoned or imputed through the male line. This is fitting because Adam was the one who introduced sin into the world in the first place (Rom. 5:12).
A Real Miracle
Because Jesus did not have an immediate human father, He was not entailed in sin with the rest of us. Because He had a true human mother, He was as human as we are, and because He was without sin, He was more fully human than we are. From this we can see that the virgin birth is not just a random miracle story, designed to impress the gullible. It is a miracle, all right, but it is a miracle like the other miracles connected with the person of Jesus Christ. Like the Incarnation itself, this miracle is necessary for the salvation of lost and sinful men.
Jesus Christ was “made of the seed of David according to the flesh; and declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:3-4). The Spirit who worked powerfully in that resurrection was the same Spirit who exercised His power when Mary first conceived. It was the same Person, the same purpose and plan, and the very same power (Luke 1:35).
Nowhere Close to Done
And the glorious thing is that this same Spirit is not done. “But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you” (Rom. 8:11). From beginning to end, the story that God is telling is a story of power. It begins with a virgin birth—but it certainly doesn’t end there.