The virgin Birth

Why Was Jesus Conceived and Born of a Virgin?

Matt. 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38

© 1994 Pastor Jeffrey J. Meyers[1]

 

This morning I would like to explore the meaning and significance of one of the most sublime mysteries in all of literature, history, philosophy, and theology: the virginal conception and birth of our Lord.  The virgin birth of Jesus is thought by many to be nothing by a mythological relic of pre-scientific religion.  I have heard many people vigorously cling to the name Christian while repudiating the virgin birth.  One woman once told me that the essence of Christianity had nothing to do with such old-fashioned doctrines. 

Unfortunately for her and many others scoffers, the orthodox Christian church has historically included the virgin birth among the doctrines which must be confessed (not necessarily understood!) in order to be saved.  A Christian is one who believes and confesses the Christian faith.  The Christian faith among other things consists of an definitive set of doctrinal propositions derived from the Scriptures.  Although it is true that Christianity is much more than assent to a set of doctrinal propositions, it certainly cannot be anything less than this. 

The doctrinal content of the Christian faith is complex and includes many truths—some of which are so crucial that unless one believes and confesses them one cannot be saved.  These truths, the confessing of which are necessary for salvation, are summarized in the Apostles' and Nicene creeds.  In both creeds the person and work of Jesus Christ occupies pride of place.  When the Christian says, "I believe," he is confessing to trust in the Triune God and his work of salvation, as the creeds explain.   

If you are a confessing Christian, then by definition you must believe and confess the virgin birth of our Lord.   If you are a confessing Christian and you do not believe in the virgin birth, then you do not truly possess in your heart the substance of what you profess with your lips.  The virgin birth is that significant.  It is that weighty.  It is not a disposable article of faith.  It cannot be jettisoned as some pre-scientific mythological fiction.  Without the virgin birth there is no divine Messiah, and without a divine Messiah there is no Christianity, only some vague moralistic do-gooder religion of humanistic love.

If our forefathers in the faith considered the virgin birth to be so foundational, and if the New Testament writers considered it so important that more space is devoted to it than many other important teachings, then surely it is of utmost importance for us to come to grips with the virginal conception and birth of our Lord—its historicity, its significance, and its ultimate purpose.

 

The Historicity of the Virgin Birth

First of all, we must believe and confess the historical fact of the virginal conception and birth of the Lord Jesus Christ.  As Christians we must believe that the virginal conception was an historical fact — a real event that happened in space and time.

The biblical record is perfectly clear: the Bible narrates the historical conception and birth of Jesus Christ in the womb of the virgin Mary. There is no question about the interpretation.  No one has every seriously questioned the entire orthodox church's interpretation of the Christmas story.  They have denied its factuality, asserted that it is myth and not historical fact, ridiculed the very idea of a virgin birth as primitive and silly—but no one denies that the authors of the Bible, particularly Matthew and Luke, intend to teach that Jesus' conception occurred out-of-wedlock by the supernatural intervention of the Holy Spirit in the virginal womb of the young girl Mary. 

Luke's historical record is probably the most familiar.  We'll listen to him first.  He tells us that the angel Gabriel was sent "to a virgin betrothed to a man. . . . The virgin's name was Mary."  Gabriel informs Mary that she will shortly give birth.  Mary responds, "How can this be, since I am a virgin" (Luke 1:27, 34).  The Greek word translated "virgin" (parthenon) refers to "a chaste, unmarried maiden, a virgin girl."  This is evident in the angel's response to Mary.  The child will be conceived miraculously through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35).  There is no room here for any other interpretation.  Thus, the historian/physician Luke chronicles the virginal conception and the birth of Jesus as a straightforward, historical account.

Apparently, Luke has written his narrative from Mary's point of view, utilizing Mary's own eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1).  Luke's references to Mary "keeping all these things in her heart and pondering them" (2:19) indicate that Mary was the custodian of the mystery of Jesus birth.  This perspective helps us understand Luke's genealogy of Jesus in chapter 3.  Luke gives the genealogy of Jesus through Mary's line.  This is most likely the genealogy of Mary's Father Heli.  Joseph is really not part of the genealogy.  Jesus was only "thought to be" Joseph's biological son (3:23), but he actually had no biological/genealogical connection to Joseph.

Matthew, on the other hand, traces Jesus lineage through Joseph.  Why?  Jesus is counted as part of the genealogy of Joseph because legally Jesus was the son of Joseph—Joseph being the one who named Jesus (attention is called to this in the text: "And he [Joseph] called his name 'Jesus'" Matt. 1:25).  Matthew provides us with a second witness to the historicity of Jesus' virgin conception and birth:  Matthew 1:18, "Now the birth of Jesus was as follows: after his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit."  How could he make it any clearer.  Jesus came into the world, into the womb of the virgin Mary, without the assistance of a man.

Matthew unequivocally informs us, "that Joseph did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son" (Matt. 1:25).  That is, he kept her a virgin; he did not have marital relations with her till their son was born.  Matthew also tells us that this virginal conception and birth fulfilled prophecy: "All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call his name Immanuel'—which means, 'God with us'" (Matt. 1:22-23). It is clear that Mary is not merely a young woman, she is a virgin girl.  The Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7:14 (hmle) denotes " a young woman who has not known a man intimately, a virgin girl."

The confessions of Christendom, accepting these historical accounts as accurate, have courageously and universally proclaimed the truth of the veritable virginal conception and birth of Jesus.  The Nicene creed (c. A.D. 325-381) says, "I believe . . . in Jesus Christ . . . conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary."  The so-called Athanasian creed (c. 500 A.D.) confesses that Jesus is "man of the substance of his mother, born in the World."  Only two groups in the early church denied Jesus' virgin birth: the Gnostics (who abhorred the material world) and the Ebionites (who denied Jesus' divine Personhood).

Here then we have 1) the clear testimony of Scripture, and 2) the universal confession of the historical church (Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox).  If you reject the virgin birth and refuse to believe it, you not only deny the truthfulness of the New Testament witness, but you also must judge as erroneous the universal testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ!  Do you confess the historicity of the virgin birth?

 

The Significance of the Virgin Birth

We can't stop here.  We have to ask the next logical question: why a virgin birth?  What is the significance of Jesus' miraculous birth?  What's the reason behind it?  Was it necessary?  Why a virginal conception?   Why not a normal birth?   Do you understand the reason why a virginal conception and birth was necessary?  First, let me clarify something.  I have been referring to the virginal conception and birth of Jesus.  Let's stop and think about this a little more carefully.  Surely, the carrying to term of this supernaturally conceived child was perfectly natural.  Mary's nine months of pregnancy and the birth of Jesus were "natural" events.  Jesus was carried by his mother and born like any of us: he was fully human.  There was nothing miraculous about Mary's pregnancy and delivery.  Therefore, it was not so much the virgin birth, but the virgin conception of Jesus that was miraculous. 

The conception of Jesus in the womb of the virgin Mary was preternatural, that is, without a natural explanation.  We are not told "how" this was accomplished beyond the fact that the Holy Spirit "came upon" Mary and enabled her to conceive apart from the contribution of a man.  Our curiosity is checked.  We are left with a mystery.  There is a kind of holy reverence displayed in the language used to describe this mystery: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" (Luke 1:35).  Thus, we are informed that the virginal conception of Jesus was the creative act of God Almighty performed through the agency of God the Holy Spirit.

But why?  Why was this necessary?  Or was it really necessary?  Was it merely the first miracle announcing the incarnation of the Son of God?  There have been many attempts to answer this question "why?"  Some of them better than others.  Before we look at the correct answer, it will be helpful to survey some of the wrong answers to the question, "why a virginal conception?" 

First, the virginal conception was not the cause of Jesus sinlessness.  This is the way Augustine (d. A.D. 430) and many after him have answered the "why" question.  The reasoning goes something like this:  In all sexual activity there is some sin involved, voluntary or involuntary.  It is impossible for a husband and a wife to be intimate without the sin of lust entering the picture.  This is why children are born into the world sinners.  Therefore, every conception taints the emerging human being with depravity.  Now, the argument continues, since Jesus was conceived without the intervention of lust, therefore, he was conceived sinless.  Is this perspective correct?  No.  There are too many insurmountable problems with this approach.  For example, the Bible clearly teaches that sexual intimacy in marriage is not inherently tainted with sin (Gen. 2:24; 1 Cor. 7:1-4; Heb. 13:4).  There is nothing innately defiling about marital intimacy and sexual reproduction.  Moreover, the theory of the transmission of sin nature upon which it is based cannot be supported biblically.  That the sin nature is acquired by the child at conception because of the lust of the parents is pure extra-biblical speculation. There is no biblical evidence for it.

The second rationale is a variation on the first: some have suggested that the sin nature of humankind is passed on through the male line.  Jesus' virginal conception and birth was necessary in order to insure that his human nature not be derived from the male line, which transmits the sin nature.  Since Jesus was to be born without a sin nature, he therefore had to be born without the agency of a man.  How do we evaluate this theory?  Before criticizing it we should note that Jesus did not, in fact, possess a sin nature.  This much is clear from Scripture, even in Luke 1:35: "the one to be born will be called Holy."   The question is: did the absence of the male factor insure his sinlessness? 

The answer has got to be "no."  This whole approach is wrong.  There is no biblical evidence to suggest that humanity's sin nature is passed on through the male seed.  This theory is based on a speculative misunderstanding of transmission of original sin.  Women as well as men share in the sin nature communicated to us from Adam (Psalm 51:5, "In sin did my mother conceive me").  Mary had a sin nature and confessed her need for a savior (Luke 1:47, "My spirit rejoices in God my Savior").  Job 15:14 has implications for the woman as well as the man: "What is man, that he could be pure, or one born of woman, that he could be righteous?"

All the biblical and medical evidence confirms that both man and woman contribute toward the substance of the new offspring.  The mere elimination of the male factor in his human conception would not, therefore, have insured Jesus' sinlessness.  Mary would have transmitted her sin nature to Jesus since Jesus partook of the substance of his mother had not the Holy Spirit prevented it.  The preservation of Jesus' human nature from sinful defilement owes to the Holy Spirit's involvement in the conception, not necessarily to the virginal conception.  The Holy Spirit preserved Jesus "at conception and through birth" from the contamination of sin that would have otherwise proceeded from Mary.

There is a third erroneous, even sub-Christian reason often given for the virgin birth: it was necessary in order to originate the Son of God.  This is unacceptable, too.  The virgin birth did not produce or generate God the Son.  The virgin Mary did not produce an offspring that was God.  Pay careful attention to how I am wording this.  The divinity of Jesus did not originate in the womb of the virgin Mary.  The deity of Christ did not come into existence at the time of the virgin birth.  The divine Person of Jesus did not come into existence at the point of conception.  Do you get the point?  No human being could beget God in the sense of being the efficient cause of his person, Being, or Existence —not even a virgin woman!  The idea is absurd.  It arises ought of mythological tales of the birth of the gods.  That is why I say it is sub-Christian.

I once heard a Moslem man ask a Christian speaker a question about the virgin birth and the Trinity.   He said, "You Christians believe in the Trinity, right?  This is the idea that there are three parts or three persons that make up God.  Now, I have a question for you: before Jesus was born were their just two parts to God and then afterwards three?  How do you explain that?"  The Christian speaker answered the man by explaining that the second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, did not come into existence at the conception and birth of Jesus.  The divine Person, the Son of God, actually existed eternally with the Father and Holy Spirit.  The virgin birth of Jesus was his coming into the world united to human nature, not his coming into being for the first time.  Nor did the virgin birth produce a third kind of being, neither God nor man, but a blending of both.  Jesus was not some kind of a Superman or demigod.  God was not the biological father of Jesus—so that Jesus was conceived as some half-divine/half-human demigod!  There is no trace in the Gospels of the pagan myth of sexually active gods attracted to human partners (I shudder to even raise this issue).  The virgin birth does not bring into existence some new hybrid being as in heathen mythology.

Why, then, you ask, was Christ conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the virgin Mary?  Get to the point!  The virginal conception and birth was necessary so that the divine Person of the Son of God could enter history as the God-man.     Normally, the intimate sexual union of a man and a woman results in conception—a conception that produces a third person, a new human person.  It is not my concern at this point to explain how that happens, merely to point out that this is what happens when a child is conceived—a new human person comes into existence.  This is not what happened at the conception of Jesus.  The Person of the Son of God did not come into existence at the moment of his conception; rather the Person of the Son of God existed prior to his conception. Furthermore, Jesus was (is) not a human person, he was (is) a divine Person. 

The eternal Son existed as a divine Person before the Holy Spirit ever worked the miracle of conception in Mary's womb.  The second Person of the Trinity came down from heaven to unite with and assume a human nature, not to become a human person, but to unite human nature with his divine Person.  God the Son had a preexistent life before he assumed our human nature. 

There are a number of biblical passages that teach this, not all of them mention specifically the virginal conception and birth, and yet these passages perfectly harmonize with the historical birth narratives.  The preexistent second Person of the Trinity became flesh (John 1:14).  Luke 1:35 says it this way, "the one to be born will be called Holy—after all, he is the Son of God."  The virgin birth inaugurated "Immanuel" (Matt. 1:22-23) = "God with us."  John insists all through his Gospel that Jesus is the Son of God who descended from Heaven (3:13; 6:38, etc.).  Paul agrees with this when he describes the incarnation: "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman. . ." (Gal. 4:4).  He also reminds us of the Person of the Messiah's origin in I Corinthians 15:47: "The first man is of the earth, earthy; the second man is of heaven."  What sense could we make of a passage like 2 Cor. 8:9 ("He who was rich, for our sakes became poor, so that through his poverty, we might become rich.") if the Person of the Son of God originated in the womb of Mary?  The virginal conception and birth of Jesus permitted the divine Son of God to unite himself to the human nature of man.  This is the mystery of the incarnation.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q# 22) asks, "How did the Son of God become man?  The answer: "The Son of God became man by taking to himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin."  The incarnation is a Trinitarian operation. There is no room for a Unitarian incarnation.  The Father sends, the Son goes and assumes a human nature, and the Holy Spirit prepares the human nature for the Son assuring it's sinlessness.  This is why Jesus was born of the virgin Mary—because a preexistent divine Person assumed the substance of the woman through the preparation and work of the Holy Spirit.

Now, someone might ask: why was Jesus born of a woman at all?  I understand what you have just said, but why did he have to be conceived by a woman and born of her?  If it is important to understand that Jesus is without a human father (he is the eternal Son of the Almighty Father), then it is just as important to know that Jesus had a mother, that he partook of the human substance of Mary and was in fact born in the same way that all humans are born.  Jesus was fully human, partaking of the humanity of his mother. Jesus shared every aspect of our humanity (Heb. 2:14ff).  It was not as if Mary was a "Teflon pipeline" through which Jesus passed like water passes through a conduit.  No!  Jesus assumed a human body and soul from the substance of Mary's humanity.  I like the language of the Athanasian Creed: "For the true faith is this: that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man; God of the substance of his Father, begotten before the worlds, and man of the substance of his mother, born in the world."

Summing up, as Christians we understand that the virgin birth was necessary since the divine Person of the Son of God assumed a fully human nature, entering the world as a divine Person and yet possessing all the attributes of humanity (body and soul).  Jesus was truly God (the second Person of the Trinity), and truly and fully human as well—the humanity of Jesus being conceived in a real human womb, developing and being born into the world like any other human newborn.   As the Shorter Catechism (Q# 21) puts it, "Jesus is both God and man, in two distinct natures, yet one Person, forever."

 

The Ultimate Purpose of the Virgin Birth

Not only must we understand the rationale for the virgin birth, but we must also come to grips with the ultimate purpose of the virgin birth of the Divine Messiah.  I mean we must know the answer to the question: "Why did God become man?"

Once again, there are some wrong answers to the question.  First, God did not become man to better communicate with man, as if God's speaking to man through his prophets is not sufficient for man to understand who God is and what he requires.  Man's ultimate problem is not a lack of knowledge of God (Rom. 1:18ff).  No!  Jesus did not become man in order to effectively communicate with us.  God had been doing that since creation, and especially by means of his inspired prophets.  Man's fundamental problem is not a lack of sufficient information!  All men "know God" (Rom. 1:21).

Second, God did not become man in order to unite the creature and the creator, to infuse man's finite, limited being with divine attributes.  Jesus did not become man so that man might overcome his creaturely limitations, as if man's ultimate problem is a metaphysical one.  In other words, man's predicament has nothing to do with the material, finite stuff of which he is made, as if being a limited, finite, material being is that which hinders us from fellowship with God.  No!  Mankind's corporeality does not separate him from fellowship with God.  Humanity's problem was not and is not our "createdness."  Jesus did not become man to "divinize" or "transform" the stuff of man's existence.

Why, then, did God become man?  God became man to deliver us from our sins. God became man in order to accomplish for man what he could not accomplish for himself, namely, salvation.  God became man to suffer for man (and as a man) the penalty for man's sin.  As the Angel explains: "and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21)

Mans problem is neither a lack of knowledge, nor a metaphysical or ontological deprivation.  Humanity's problem is ethical.  Fallen man is in a rebellious relationship with his Creator.   Our problem has to do with our sinful posture toward God.  We are sinners.  We have rebelled against the king of heaven and justice demands that we be executed. 

God became man so that he might deliver man from his sins.  "This is a faithful saying . . . Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Tim. 1:15).  God became man so that he might, as almighty God, save redeem fallen man.  God became man so that he might, as fully human, bear the punishment that must fall upon guilty man.  The virgin birth, then, is not the whole story.  The ultimate purpose of the virgin birth was to effect the entrance of the God-man.  But the purpose of God uniting with man was not an end in itself, but a means to an end.  Jesus Christ is the mediator between God and man, the only mediator between God and man. 

The purpose of Christ's conception and birth was not achieved with the baby in the manger, not with the infant Jesus in the cradle, but rather, with Jesus on the cross, and Jesus rising from the dead as a glorified man.  "The Son of man came to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).

We began this sermon with a reference to what it means to be a Christian.  A Christian is one who believes and confesses the Christian faith.  Do you believe and confess the Christian faith?  Are you a Christian?  Do you confess that Jesus is truly God and that the saving work of Jesus is the saving work of God himself?  Do you confess that Jesus is truly man, and that as man he participates in our human nature in order to restore us to fellowship with God?  The historicity, meaning, and ultimate purpose of the virginal conception and birth of Jesus all converge into one coherent testimony.  Only the God-man is able to bring us back to God, to restore our lost relationship with our heavenly Father.  This is what the virgin birth is all about. This is why Jesus had to be conceived and born of a virgin.

 



[1] Please don't expect polished, nicely edited volumes of sermon notes.  I'm not going to spend valuable time looking for subtle spelling and grammar errors.  So all you English majors out there, please cut me some slack!  Don't hold it against me if you find a number of small typos and mistakes.  If the computer spelling/grammar check doesn't pick it up, that's tough.