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The Amazing Fact of the Virgin Birth
Extraordinary births are certainly not unprecedented in biblical history. As part of the Abrahamic Covenant, God promised to send a son to Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 17:19-22). They were both beyond normal childbearing ages and laughed at the prospect of being parents, yet they ultimately witnessed the miraculous arrival of their son, Isaac (Gen. 21:1-3). In Judges 13, an angel of the Lord told Manoah and his barren wife that they would have a special son. True to the heavenly messenger's words, Samson entered the world and for a time delivered the Israelites from the oppression of the Philistines.
Samuel, the first prophet, final judge, and anointer of kings, also demonstrated in his birth the providential power of God. He was the answer to the faithful, persevering prayers of his godly mother, Hannah, who had remained childless until then. John the Baptist's mother, Elizabeth, was also unable to have children until God graciously intervened when she was in her sixties or seventies and made her the mother of the forerunner of Christ (Luke 1:15-17, 76-79). But none of those special births was as amazing as the virgin birth of the Son of God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
UNBELIEF REGARDING THE VIRGIN BIRTH
Even though the fact of Jesus' virgin birth is clearly and concisely stated in Scripture, the unconverted mind of sinful humanity, as with all essential doctrines of the Christian faith, resists embracing the truth of His unique birth.
First of all, ancient mythologies and world religions counterfeited Christ's virgin birth with a proliferation of bizarre stories and inaccurate parallels. These stories undercut and minimized the uniqueness and profound impact of our Lord's birth. Several accounts illustrate the point. The Romans claimed that Zeus impregnated Semele without contact and produced Dionysus, lord of the earth. Babylonian religion asserted that a sunbeam in the priestess Semiramis conceived Tammuz, the Sumerian fertility god (Ezek. 8:14). Buddha's mother allegedly saw a large white elephant enter her belly when she conceived the deified Indian philosopher. Hinduism teaches that the divine Vishnu, after living as a fish, tortoise, boar, and lion, entered Devaki's womb and became her son, Krishna. Satan has propagated other similar legends, all with the purpose of undermining the nature of Christ's birth and deceiving people into seeing it as just another myth or nothing exceptional.
In addition, the scientific age and the emergence of modern and postmodern theologies during the past two centuries have eroded many professed believers' confidence in the reality of the virgin birth. (Along with that trend has been a noticeable decline in the percentage of "Christians" who believe in the deity of Christ.) But such skeptical thinking is foolish and directly contrary to the explicit teaching of all four Gospels, the Epistles, and the historical testimony of the entire early church that Jesus was none other than the virgin-born Son of God.
Unfortunately, a heart attitude of unbelief concerning Jesus' identity has characterized the majority of men and women since the Fall. The Jews who opposed Christ vividly illustrated that attitude on more than one occasion (John 5:18; 7:28-30; 10:30-39). But such hostility and lack of faith should not discourage us or deter us from embracing and defending the truth of Christ's virgin birth. The apostle Paul reminds us, "For what if some did not believe? Will their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect? Certainly not! Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar" (Rom. 3:3-4, 10:16; Isa. 53:1). The world's opinion, popular as it might be, is rarely a reliable source of truth.
Undoubtedly, therefore, the Holy Spirit acted with significant purpose in devoting an early passage from the Gospel of Matthew, at the front of the New Testament, to establish right away the humanity and deity of our Lord. His incarnation, properly understood, is foundational to Christianity. There could have been no genuine work of redemption apart from the fact of God becoming man and, by being both completely God and completely man, reconciling people to Himself through His substitutionary death and physical resurrection. If Jesus had not been both human and divine, there would be no gospel. (For further discussion on the necessity of believing and proclaiming the truth of Christ's virgin birth and deity, see chapter 8 of my book Nothing but the Truth [Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1999]).
Many skeptical New Testament commentators will concede that Matthew and other authors of Scripture sincerely believed and taught that the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus without any assistance from a human father. But such interpreters nevertheless glibly discount the validity of Scripture's claims by immediately asserting that its writers were naive, uneducated, and subject to the myths and superstitions of ancient times. According to the critics, the Gospel writers merely adapted some of the familiar virgin birth legends to the story of Jesus' birth.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Matthew's account, for example, reads as history, but it is history he could know and record only because God revealed it and accomplished it by miraculous intervention. Matthew's words are far superior to the immoral and repulsive nature of the secular stories he and the other writers allegedly drew from. Here is his clear, uncomplicated narrative of the Incarnation:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins."
So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: "Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel," which is translated, "God with us."
Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)
Matthew declares Jesus' divine lineage in this passage and reveals five aspects of His virgin birth: its first announcement, Joseph's response to it, the angel's clarification of it, its connection to prophecy, and its actual occurrence.
THE VIRGIN BIRTH ANNOUNCED
Matthew needs only one verse (1:18) to announce the fact of Christ's virgin birth. Such a concise statement, though it doesn't all by itself prove the point, strongly suggests that the notion of our Lord and Savior's virgin birth was not simply a man-made story. A human author, writing strictly on his own initiative, would characteristically tend to describe such a momentous and amazing event in an expansive, detailed, and elaborate manner. But not the apostle Matthew. He does relate additional circumstances surrounding the virgin birth, but the basic fact is stated in one simple sentence: "After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit."
Matthew devotes the previous seventeen verses to Jesus' human genealogy but just this part of one verse to His divine genealogy. As the Son of God, Jesus "descended" from His heavenly Father by a miraculous and never-repeated act of the Holy Spirit; even so, the Holy Spirit chose to announce that astounding truth by just one brief, declarative sentence. As all God's Word does, Matthew's simple statement contains the solemn tone of authenticity. By contrast, a human fabrication would tend to have that false ring of exaggeration to it, being filled out with much more "convincing" material than what this inspired version needed.
Scripture gives us little information about Mary and even less about Joseph. Mary was undoubtedly a godly young woman, probably a native of Nazareth who came from a relatively poor family. Joseph was the son of Jacob (Matt. 1:16) and was a craftsman, probably a carpenter (13:55). Most significant, he was a "just man" (1:19), one who placed saving trust in the coming Messiah.
Most likely Mary and Joseph were both quite young when they were engaged ("betrothed"). She may have been as young as twelve or thirteen, and he not any older than fifteen or sixteen. Such youthfulness at the time of a couple's engagement was standard for that culture. Another standard aspect of the Jewish betrothal was its binding nature-society considered the man and the woman legally married even though the formal ceremony and consummation might occur a year later. The purpose of the engagement period was to confirm each partner's fidelity when the two had little or no social contact with each another.
Mary and Joseph faithfully abstained from sexual relations with one another during the engagement period, as the contract required. That was also in accord with the Bible's high regard for sexual purity and God's commands for sexual abstinence prior to the marriage ceremony and for sexual fidelity afterward. Thus, Mary's virginity was an important indicator of her godliness.
However, Mary's virginity protected something much more important than her own morality and godly reputation. It ensured the deity of Christ and supported the veracity of His teaching and works as the Son of God. Had Jesus been conceived by natural means, with Joseph or anyone else as His father, He would not have been God and would not have been a true Savior of sinners. To be in accord with what Scripture reported about His life, He would have had to make false claims about Himself, and He would have had to endorse false stories or hoaxes concerning the Resurrection and Ascension. Meanwhile everyone would have remained spiritually dead, condemned forever by their unforgiven sins. But we know that all that is absolutely contrary to what God's Word teaches.
The apostle Paul, for example, was also very clear and concise when he reiterated the true nature of the Incarnation: "But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman" (Gal. 4:4). Paul includes no mention of a human father for Jesus because, according to the divine plan, God was His Father. Jesus had one human parent (Mary) so that He could be a man and identify closely with what it means to be human (Phil. 2:5-7; Heb. 4:15). And He had divine parentage so He could live a sinless life, perfectly fulfill the Law of God for us, and make the perfect sacrifice for our sins.
Admittedly, all these centuries after Matthew's divinely inspired Gospel declared that Jesus was born of a virgin, His miraculous conception remains impossible to understand by human reason alone. God chose not to explain the details of it to us, even as He chose to leave unexplained the intricacies of His creating the universe from nothing, the precise way He could be one God in three Persons, or exactly what happens when depraved sinners are born again as they repent of their sins and trust Christ. Many of the essentials of Christianity God wants believers to accept by faith. Full understanding will have to wait until heaven: "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now [we] know in part, but then [we] shall know [fully]" (1 Cor. 13:12).
JOSEPH'S RESPONSE TO THE VIRGIN BIRTH
Initial news of Mary's condition presented Joseph with a twofold problem. A caring and responsible person concerned about doing the right thing, Joseph was unwilling to proceed with his original plans once he perceived that a crucial part of those plans was no longer acceptable. His difficulty was intensified by the reality that he was a righteous man, genuinely concerned about doing what was morally and ethically right according to God's Law. First, when Joseph realized Mary was pregnant, he knew he could not go ahead with their marriage. He knew he was not the father and, based on what he knew at the time, he had to assume that another man was.
Joseph's second difficult decision concerned how he should then treat Mary. Because he was a good and loving man, he was grieved at the thought of shaming her publicly (a common practice in those days when a wife was unfaithful), and even more so at the prospect of demanding her death, as provided for in Deuteronomy 22:23-24. We don't know if he felt anger, resentment, or bitterness, but he certainly experienced shame at what he had to assume was true. However, Joseph's concern was not primarily with his own shame and embarrassment, but with Mary's. Matthew 1:19 says, "not wanting to make her a public example, [Joseph] was minded to put her away secretly."
Therefore, Joseph's plan was to divorce Mary secretly so she would not have to endure the disgrace of everyone in the community knowing about her supposed sin. Not many husbands ever display such firmly held and deeply felt love for their wives. Of course eventually, when the marriage didn't occur, everyone would have found out that something had gone wrong. But at least in the meantime Mary would be protected from humiliation and death.
The Lord, however, in His sovereign providence and wonderful grace, intervened directly into the situation and spared Joseph the further trauma of actually carrying out his divorce plans. "But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit'" (Matt. 1:20). This verse underscores the miraculous nature of the virgin birth and the supernatural character surrounding the entire event of Christ's birth. It also provides divine assurance to Joseph ("son of David") and to us that Jesus had legitimate royal lineage that legally came through Joseph as a descendant of King David.
The angel's words provide the ultimate and most irrefutable testimony to the essential truth of the virgin birth and to the proper rsponse Joseph was to have to Mary's extraordinary situation.
THE ANGEL CLARIFIES THE VIRGIN BIRTH
But what was the significance of Mary's pregnancy even though she had not had relations with Joseph or any other man? Joseph likely would have spent some time puzzling over that question if the divine messenger had not immediately clarified his pronouncement with these words, "'And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins'" (Matt. 1:21).
The angel tells Joseph that Mary will actually bear a son. And not just any son, but Jesus, who "will save His people from their sins." God chose the name Jesus for His Son because its basic meaning defined the fundamental, overarching purpose for the Son's coming to earth. Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew Joshua, Jeshua, or Jehoshua, each of which means "Jehovah (Yahweh) will save." The baby Mary had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and would give birth to in the plan of God would grow up to testify to the Father's salvation and would Himself be that salvation. By His own sacrificial death on the Cross and triumphant Resurrection from the grave He would save His own-all those who are drawn from sin to repentance and who receive faith to embrace His atoning work.
THE VIRGIN BIRTH PROPHESIED
At the time the angel told Joseph about Jesus' unique birth, the idea of a virgin birth was not one that was completely foreign to the Jews' understanding of their Scripture. Although they misinterpreted it, many of the rabbis exegeted Jeremiah 31:22 ("a woman shall encompass a man") in a way that suggested the Messiah would have an unusual birth. Their fanciful explanation of that verse ("Messiah is to have no earthly father," and "The birth of Messiah shall be like the dew of the Lord, as drops upon the grass without the action of man") at least preserved the general idea that the Messiah's birth would be unique.
Actually the Book of Genesis gives us the first glimpse that Christ's birth would be special: "'And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed'" (3:15). Technically, the woman's seed belongs to the man, but Mary's impregnation by the Holy Spirit is the only instance in history that a woman had a seed within her that did not originate from a human man.
The later divine promise to Abraham concerned his "descendants" (Hebrew, "seed"; Gen. 12:7), a common Old Testament way of referring to offspring. The unique reference in Genesis 3:15 to "her Seed" looks beyond Adam and Eve to Mary and to Christ. The two seeds of that verse can have a twofold emphasis. First, they can primarily refer to all people who are part of Satan's progeny and all who are part of Eve's. The two groups constantly wage spiritual war against each other, with the people of righteousness eventually defeating the people of evil. Second, the word translated "Seed" can be singular and refer mainly to one final, glorious product of a woman-the Lord Jesus Himself, born without human seed. In that sense the prophecy is definitely Messianic.
Matthew 1:22-23 clearly identifies Jesus' virgin birth as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy: "So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: 'Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,' which is translated, 'God with us.'" Matthew's quotation here of Isaiah 7:14 confirms that the prophet did in fact predict the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.
The prophet Isaiah made this momentous prophecy during the reign of Judah's wicked and idolatrous King Ahaz. The king faced a major military threat from the Israelite king, Pekah; and the Syrian king, Rezin; both of whom wanted to overthrow Ahaz and replace him with a more compliant monarch. Instead of seeking the Lord's help during that crisis, King Ahaz turned to Tiglath-Pileser, the brutal ruler of the pagan Assyrians. Ahaz even induced their assistance by offering them gold and silver stolen from God's Temple.
Ahaz refused to listen to Isaiah's report that God would deliver the people from Pekah and Rezin. Therefore the prophet spoke the remarkable prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, which told Ahaz that no one would destroy the people of God or the royal line of David. And sure enough, although Tiglath-Pileser destroyed the northern kingdom (Israel), deported its population, and overran Judah four times, God ultimately preserved His people just as He promised.
Isaiah also said that before another child (Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz) was very mature or aware of events, the territories of Rezin and Pekah would be abandoned (Isa. 7:15-16). Again, the prophet's divinely inspired words were completely accurate. Before the other child, who was born to Isaiah's wife, was three years old, the two enemy kings were dead. Just as God fulfilled that ancient prophecy about Isaiah's son, so He was about to fulfill the one concerning the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Both were signs from the Lord that He would not abandon His people, but the greatest of the two was obviously the second one: that His Son would actually be born of a virgin, live among His people, and die for their sins.
In his original pronouncement in 7:14, Isaiah used the Hebrew word It is interesting that in modern Hebrew either Matthew's use of Isaiah's prophecy followed directly in the prophet's path. The apostle was not giving Although the credibility of the virgin birth does not rest solely on the use of a Hebrew word, a general understanding of the background and usage of
THE OCCURRENCE OF THE VIRGIN BIRTH
All of Matthew's explanation of the significance of the virgin birth came within the revelatory dream God gave to Joseph. Such extraordinary, direct communication evidently occurred while Joseph engaged in the otherwise ordinary activity of sleeping. Matthew does not record any detail of Joseph's immediate reaction, except to say that he woke up and obeyed the angel's instructions: "Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus" (1:24-25).
You can imagine how great Joseph's feelings of amazement, relief, and gratitude must have been once he realized what the Lord, through the heavenly messenger, had told him. Not only could he go ahead and gladly take Mary as his wife with honor and righteousness, but also he could rejoice at the privilege of being allowed to bring up God's own Son.
The wedding ceremony of Joseph and Mary likely took place soon after Joseph received the angel's announcement. Matthew makes it clear that Mary remained a virgin until after Jesus was born, implying that normal marital relations began after that time. That, along with the references to Jesus' brothers and sisters (Matt. 12:46; 13:55-56; Mark 6:3), proves Mary was not a virgin for her entire life, as some claim.
Finally, Joseph followed through on God's command in Matthew 1:21 and named the baby Jesus, indicating, as we've already seen, that He was to be the Savior.
The amazing fact of Jesus' supernatural birth is the only way to explain the perfect, sinless life He lived while on earth. A skeptic who denied the virgin birth once asked a Christian, "If I told you that child over there was born without a human father, would you believe me?" "Yes," the believer replied, "if he lived as Jesus lived."
Christ's virgin birth is a necessary component that helps us believe and make sense of the entire story of His person and work. His extraordinary conception and birth, not before or since equaled, is an amazing reality that we should with joy and gratitude never take for granted.