THE BIRTH OF JESUS
By the term "the virgin birth of Christ" we mean that Jesus did not have a human father, but was begotten of the Holy Spirit. The term places emphasis on Christ's supernatural birth, the method by which the eternal Son of God, who was from eternity, took the form and flesh of a created being without ceasing to be God.
If Jesus Christ had both a human father and mother He was begotten as we are begotten. If He had neither, then He could not be a man. The nature of His birth proves both His divinity and His humanity.
"Before their marriage she found that she was with child by the Holy Spirit." Mary was plighted, or betrothed, to Joseph, but not yet married to him. There is every evidence that Mary was a virgin. Mary herself asks of the angel Gabriel, who came to her with the announcement that she was with child, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" (Luke 1:34).
The Scriptures affirm that Jesus was conceived by the action of the Holy Spirit upon the virgin Mary. Joseph heard Mary's explanation as to how she became pregnant. The dream given him from God convinced him of her truthfulness, and he did not then hesitate to take her to be his wife. The emphasis throughout is upon Mary's being a virgin.
"I came down from heaven" (John 6:38). In these simple words Jesus declared that He was not an ordinary man; that He was different from those who were listening to His sermon on the Bread of Life. And the Jews did not like what He said:
The Jews clearly understood Christ's claim that His origin was different from theirs. And they got the point that if He came from heaven, He could be none other than the Son of God, the long-expected Messiah.
We know that Jesus did come from heaven, and that He was born of Mary. Let us hold fast to these two facts. It is highly important that we put these two scriptural statements together: the Son of God from heaven and the Son of man from Mary's womb. These declare that the nature of His conception was different from that of all other men.
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Christ's beginning here on earth. The Gospel statements regarding His manner of birth are not designed to create a scientific problem for men to argue about. It is an essential truth of His own person and Messianic work. In the understanding and belief of the miraculous birth of Jesus we are simply confronted by the Word of God.
We cannot prove the virgin birth. The Bible gives us no scientific evidence to demonstrate how it took place. We are not asked to prove that Jesus was born with only one earthly parent, to establish research laboratories complete with all the tools of chemistry and biology in order to study genetics and the action of the genes and chromosomes to search out the nature of Christ's conception. There is no way to unravel the mystery of either the Incarnation or the virgin birth. The Bible does not theorize on this subject. It affirms. It proclaims. And in its proclamation of the coming of the second person of the Godhead to our world is the most amazing revelation that can possibly capture our interest.
The whole question of miracles is settled the moment we admit that in and behind the material universe there is a living, loving, wise and powerful God.JOHN R. STRATON and CHARLES F. POTTER, The Virgin BirthFact or Fiction? p. 19.
Modern science has given us a clear understanding regarding the natural process of conception, that new human life comes into the world by the union of the male and female cells, with an equal number of chromosomes from each parent. This is the only natural way. Our enlightened age tends to regard anything beyond that as impossible and therefore unacceptable. It is argued that such a thing as a virgin birth never happened within human experience, and therefore could not have happened in the case of Christ.
There is nothing wrong with asking questions. However, in the account of Jesus' birth we have the sure Word of God, which is the basis of our faith. According to the Bible the virgin-birth account stands for supernaturalism against naturalism. God chose Mary to be the mother of the Messiah. He did not choose Joseph, or any other man, to be the father.
Writing of Christ's coming into the world, John said, "The Word was with God, and the Word was God.... In him was life; and the life was the light of men" (John 1:1-4). The Word spoken of here is more than something God says to us. It is the Lord Jesus Himself. In the birth of the child Jesus is the hope of the world. He is the living God incarnate. This is God's supreme revelation of love to man. In the birth of Jesus we are confronted with no one less than God Himself. God proclaims that Jesus is more than human; He is indeed the Son of God.
Both Jesus' entrance into this world and His departure from it are miraculous, supernatural. Our entrance into the world is natural. There was never anyone like our Lord Jesus Christ.
Comparative Silence of the New Testament on the Virgin Birth
How do we explain the fact that so little is said in the Bible about the virgin birth? The New Testament and the early church proclaim in trumpet tones the great truths of Christ's incarnation, His sinless life, atoning death, resurrection, and ascension. Critics have concluded that, because of the comparative silence regarding the virgin birth, it was never part of the official creed of the church nor of the gospel proclaimed by the apostles. Therefore, to their minds, there is serious doubt that it is factual. Some suggest it should be abandoned as an article of faith.
The Jews believed Jesus was born out of wedlock and said so. There was nothing in Jewish tradition suggesting that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. Consequently, any claim to a miraculous birth would be unacceptable to them. Such a teaching would only aggravate their disbelief.
Later, they refused to believe in a Christ who would allow Himself to be nailed to a cross to make atonement for sin. They wanted nothing to do with such a Messiah. So, any statement on the part of Jesus or His disciples regarding His virgin birth would have made it all the more difficult for them to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the long-promised Messiah.
The question was raised regarding His claim to be the Messiah: "Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?" (Matt. 13:55, 56). "For neither did his brethren believe in him" (John 7:5). Had they been told of His miraculous birth, would they not have believed in Him?
Nowhere is there a record that either Joseph or Mary made any reference to Jesus' miraculous conception. They simply kept quiet about it. We are told that "Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19). We have no knowledge as to when Mary actually told Jesus about it. By the time He reached 12 years of age He knew He was the Son of God and the Messiah.
Furthermore, Joseph would not be inclined to tell anyone that he found Mary pregnant before they were actually married. Apparently there were suspicions of some such thing anyway, because the Jews later made cruel allusions to illegitimacy (John 8:4 1). Such a story would have elicited ridicule from the Jews and created additional difficulty for Christ when He began His ministry.
Jesus Himself says nothing about the secret of His birth. When charged with being "born of fornication" He did not defend Himself by explaining to His enemies that He was conceived of the Holy Spirit. This would have played into their hands. Also, when Christ entered on His public ministry what could have been gained by telling people about His birth?
Undoubtedly, Mary must have told her Son the story of His birth early enough to encourage and enlighten Him for His unique work as the world's Saviour and Lord. Since Joseph apparently died before Christ began His ministry, it is probable that Mary told the story to most of the disciples.
All through the years, to the time of Jesus' baptism and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Him, no one had any idea that the carpenter's "Son" from Nazareth was the Messiah. At His baptism John the Baptist said, "After me cometh a man which is preferred before me. . . . And I knew him not" (John 1:30, 3 1). Had anything been disclosed or believed about His miraculous birth, the word would surely have gotten around.
It is evident that in His providence God made provisions that the central truths of the gospel, including the Incarnation, would be clearly defined, understood, and proclaimed. For man to believe in the Incarnation provided the basis for his trust in Jesus as the world's Saviour and Lord.
Silence on the subject of the virgin birth does not necessarily suggest that the early church did not believe it to be true. However, belief in the Incarnation can not be fully brought to light except by accepting the virgin birth.
Relation of the Virgin Birth to the Incarnation
Is it possible to believe in the Incarnation. and not in the virgin birth? To do so would mean believing that the Son of God was united with the human Jesus some time after His conception. But if Jesus was not born of a virgin, as the record tells us, He must have been conceived illegitimately.
But if we take this position we give up much more than the virgin birth. For then Jesus was the son of both Joseph and Mary and no different from any other child. Moreover, rejection of the virgin birth denies the integrity of the Bible as the Word of God. The doctrine, both of the Incarnation and of the virgin birth, rests on the conviction that we have the Scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit.
The real issue goes back to the Incarnation. If we believe Jesus to be God incarnate we should have no difficulty in believing the miraculous nature of His birth. The Incarnation expresses itself in the virgin birth of our Lord.
In the miraculous entrance of the Son of God into our world we have an essential and fundamental part of the Christian gospel. Christ's coming into the world by means of the Incarnation and the virgin birth manifests the love and power of God. This love is the basis of the supernatural act of God in the birth of Jesus, the divine expression of love through the self-sacrifice and self emptying of the Son of God.
The miracle of the Incarnation and the virgin birth must stand or fall together. We cannot doubt that such a miracle took place and at the same time preserve the deity of Christ. What we have is the very God Himself who came to us by way of the virgin birth and the Incarnation. "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth" (John 1: 14).
Why should such honor and glory expressed in these words be attributed to a child who was merely of earthly parents? This divine ascription does not belong to ordinary men.
Christ, Seed of the Woman
"And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel" (Gen. 3:15). This expression is unusual since, in the Bible, children are regarded as seed of the man. While this point should not be overemphasized, in the light of the Incarnation we see in it some significance that the text centers attention on the woman instead of the man.
A further significance connected with excluding the male involves the supernatural intervention of God Himself. The woman provides the only link with humanity. The Holy Spirit provides the link with deity. The absence of the male proclaims that the coming of the Redeemer is something that man of himself cannot do. The initiative is with God. God did not simply send a Saviour through the line of natural generation. The Redeemer, while He was to be the Seed of the woman without any human father, came to us from God Himself by a special creative act of the Holy Spirit. Nothing less than this could do.
In these words the apostle Paul emphasizes Jesus' being born of a woman and, indirectly, refers to the virgin birth of Christ. The inference is of Christ's birth from a woman without the interference of man. It is folly to believe that a man, the offspring of two earthly parents, could under any condition be God, the eternal Son of God.
The story of Christ's birth in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke record historical facts, not legends. And it is found in all the earliest manuscripts of these books that we possess. In these two Gospels we have variants of the same story, but the variants are united in the main fact of the miraculous conception and the virgin birth.
There is not the slightest evidence that either Joseph or Mary invented or added to the story, which is told briefly and to the point. To invent such a story would have exposed the ministry of Christ to failure from the start.
Furthermore, if Matthew's and Luke's accounts of the virgin birth were untrue, the writers could not have been inspired of God, so their Gospels would have no authority. Inspiration requires that the writers of the books of the Bible rise clear of falsity under the control and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Underlying and behind the Gospel narratives is the work of the Holy Spirit upon Mary. The third member of the Godhead controls the entire event of Christ's birth and the recording of it. The statement "conceived by the Holy Spirit" cannot be proved except by Scriptures, and is not explained by God to the Gospel writers or to anyone. If the statement, "conceived by the Holy Spirit," is not true, then Mary, the mother of Jesus, was involved in impurity, since Joseph knew and declared that Jesus was not his son. In that case Jesus would have had to be born of a sinful human mother and father; He could not have been the second person of the Godhead. We must let the Bible speak for itself.
Matthew presents the facts of Jesus' birth and the events surrounding it, from Joseph's point of view. All the facts he recounts were those experienced by and known to Joseph. Inasmuch as Joseph died before Matthew became a disciple of Jesus, someone to whom Joseph recounted the details must have told Matthew. Barring divine revelation, the information could only have come from Joseph.
Four times the angel instructed and guided Joseph in a dream (Matt. 1:20, 21, 24; 2:12, 13, 19, 20, 22). Only Matthew records this. Hence the account of Jesus' birth in Matthew's gospel was, it would seem, compiled from Joseph's personal statement. After the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, Matthew wrote down the facts about Christ's birth, which Joseph had perhaps at some time related to someone.
The story begins when Joseph learned that Mary was with child. She evidently told him that much without further explanation, and quietly waited on God to guide both herself and Joseph without trying to justify herself.
The betrothal of Mary to Joseph had taken place at a previous time. This involved a promise before witnesses. It constituted a solemn contract to marry. It was a Jewish custom for a betrothed maiden to remain at her father's house until the husband came and took her to his own house. A betrothal was regarded as a legal union; the two were, in effect, husband and wife. A violation of this relationship with another person was considered adultery and, under the Mosaic system, carried the death penalty (Deut. 22:23, 24).
In this case Joseph determined to cancel the contract. He could do this in two ways: either by public hearing and disgrace or privately. As a man of high character, and out of his love for Mary, he was not willing to make her a public example. He decided for the private way, which was simply to give her a letter of divorce.
The Jews attached great importance to dreams from God, as is seen throughout the Scriptures. So no doubt lingered in Joseph's mind that the child Mary carried was conceived of the Holy Spirit and was destined to be the Messiah, the Saviour of the world. He was convinced that God had chosen Mary, his wife, to be the mother of the Messiah. At this point Mary felt perfectly free to give her husband a detailed account of all that had happened.
Further confirmation followed at Bethlehem when Christ was bornthe worship of the shepherds, the adoration of the Magi, who came with gifts, and another visit to Joseph by the angel who warned him to flee with his family to Egypt because King Herod planned to destroy the young child.
There is no Biblical record that Jesus ever referred to Joseph as His father. Other people spoke of Joseph and Mary as His parents, for they knew nothing of His miraculous conception. But Jesus knew His origin, that He had only one earthly parent. When He was 12 He was taken to Jerusalem by Joseph and Mary. He became separated from them, and they eventually found Him talking with the learned doctors in the Temple. When they reproached Him He responded, "Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business? And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them" (Luke 2:49, 50).
Between this experience and the time when Jesus began His public ministry all that is said of Him is "He went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man" (verses 51, 52).
How then, it is asked, do we account for the genealogies given by Matthew and Luke, which trace Christ's genealogy not only through Mary but also through Joseph? Does this not prove Jesus to be altogether human? Why include Joseph in the genealogy?
It is most likely that Joseph accepted Jesus as his own son. Otherwise , what would Joseph and Mary have recorded officially regarding the birth of Jesus? The evidence from Scripture gives credence to the idea that neither Joseph nor Mary said anything to anyone at the time about how Mary came to be with child. Even the other children in the family, those referred to as Jesus' brothers and sisters, had not been told.
The various Scripture records and statements on Christ's birth confirm one another. We can understand clearly the Bible teaching on the birth of our Lord.
Luke's account of the birth of Christ is from Mary's point of view. Luke did not join the church until after Pentecost, so he had no access to Joseph, who by that time had been dead several years. The apostle John had taken Mary to live in his house. Undoubtedly Dr. Luke met her and got the details of Christ's birth from her.
Much of Luke's account describes what took place between Mary and the angel Gabriel. It begins with Gabriel's visit to Elisabeth and Zacharias, to whom he gave God's promise that they would have a son who would prepare the way for the Messiah (Luke 1:5-25).
The angel is then sent "to a virgin, espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary" (verse 27). Mary became disturbed at the angel's approach and his announcement that she had been chosen of God to bear the Son of the Highest." She asked, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" (verse 34).
Jesus was conceived, but not begotten as humans are begotten. The Holy Spirit did not take the place of the human father to supply the male seed. The conception was a miracle, wrought by the omnipotent operation of the Holy Spirit. This agrees with Matthew's account that "She was found with child by the Holy Ghost." Beyond this we cannot go. God's method of Christ's becoming flesh is a mystery.
The angel gave Mary a fourfold description of the Child: "He will be great"of excellent character and incomparable in His person. "He will bear the title 'Son of the Most High'"an accepted title of the coming Messiah. "'The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David, and he will be king over Israel for ever; his reign shall never end"' (Luke 1:32, 33, N.E.B.). All this was in harmony with the tradition of the Messiah who was to come.
In addition to his own word, Gabriel gave Mary two proof s of the truth of God's word to her; the child would be conceived of the Holy Spirit, and her cousin Elisabeth would bear a child in her old age. Mary felt no further anxiety. She accepted the honor as the servant of the Lord. Within a few weeks Mary went to visit Elisabeth. She was able to confirm both of the signs given her.
The early church was united in believing that the Son of God took human flesh through the virgin Mary. Jesus was God's unspeakable gift to man.
"Behold, a Virgin Shall Conceive, and Bear a Son"
Matthew quoted from the prophet Isaiah, that "a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son" (chap. 7:14). He considered this a prophecy that pointed forward to the birth by a virgin of one who would be the promised Messiah.
Christian interpreters have accepted Matthew's application of Isaiah's prophecy to the miracle of the birth of Jesus Christ from the time of Justin Martyr in the second century down to the present time. Among Jewish scholars there is no evidence that this text was ever understood or accepted as referring to the Messiah or of predicting His virgin birth.
Certain questions have been raised by Biblical scholars concerning the true meaning of the Hebrew word translated "virgin," her identification and that of her son, within the historical context of the prophet Isaiah's time.
The historical background of Isaiah 7:14 is concerned with the threat to the kingdom of Judah by Pekah, king of Samaria, and Rezin, king of Syria. They had allied themselves against Ahaz, king of Judah, and attacked Jerusalem. In face of this peril, God commanded Isaiah to take his son, Shear-jashub, and go to see Ahaz. This son's name meant "a remnant shall return" and was intended as a sign to Ahaz that Judah would not be destroyed.
God offered Ahaz the privilege of choosing any sign he might desire. "Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above" (verse 11).
The sign would be a pledge that God would perform any deed or miracle to convince Ahaz that He was prepared to save the kingdom of Judah from its enemies. Ahaz refused the offer: "I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord" (verse 12). Ahaz had no desire nor intention to put his trust in God or rely on Him for guidance and power to save. He preferred to depend on himself.
Under these circumstances Isaiah replied that God would give him a sign whether he wanted it or not, a sign entirely of God's choosing. He then spoke these significant words: "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (verse 14).
Who is the "virgin" and who is the child to be called Immanuel? The first Christian Messianic interpretation of this verse is in Matthew 1: 18-23. The Hebrew word translated "virgin" in Isaiah 7:14 is 'almah, which the Bible writers consistently use to mean a young woman in the mature vigor of her young womanhood. The usual word for "virgin" in the Old Testament is bethulah, which occurs more than sixty times (including Isa. 23:4, 12; 37:22; 47: 1; 62:5). Had Isaiah intended to stress the idea of virginity in chapter 7 :14 he would doubtless have used bethulah, instead of 'almah.
The Greek word translated " virgin" in Matthew 1:21 is parthenos, a word that can properly, but does not necessarily, indicate virginity in the sense of chastity. For instance, parthenos was used of Temple prostitutes. That Matthew intended parthenos to describe Mary as a chaste young woman, however, is evident from the account of the manner of Jesus' birth as recorded by Matthew and Luke.*
The Holy Spirit evidently led Matthew to apply the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 to the birth of Jesus. The chief message of this prophecy is the declaration of hope and deliverance in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power. He is God's highest point in all the prophecies of the Old Testament. All progress in truth, In faith and love, and in the history of the church is a progress toward the life of Him who came from God the Father, and whose name is 'Jesus, "for he shall save his people from their sins.
*In the book Problems in Bible Translation, Raymond F. Cottrell, who wrote the article on Isaiah 7:14, makes the following observation:
"The Hebrew term descriptive of virginity is bethulah, which means strictly 'virgin' and nothing else in the 50 instances where it appears in the Old Testament. It is translated 38 times as 'virgin' and 12 times as 'maid' or 'maiden' always in reference to a pure, unmarried woman. . . .
"It is most significant that Zion as a type of God's people, a 'chaste virgin,' parthenos (2 Cor. 11:2), is referred to in 2 Kings 19:21; Isa. 37:22; 62:5; Jer. 14:17; 31:4; Lam. 1:15; etc., as a bethulah but never as an 'almah. In fact, God's people are never spoken of figuratively as an 'almah; He will be satisfied with nothing less than a church properly described as a bethulah. God is not concerned with age but with character. "Pages 154, 155.
Both Hebrew words, 'almah and bethulah, are used for "virgin" in various texts of the Old Testament. The Greek word used by the Septuagint and the Gospel writers is parthenos, the usual Greek word for virgin. There can, therefore, be no objections to using the term virgin in a translation of Isaiah 7:14.
Who was the virgin or maiden to whom Isaiah refers? Interpreters who believe the prophecy applies to Isaiah's own day argue that the woman was either the wife of Ahaz or of the prophet himself, or some unknown woman living then. Many believe it refers to Isaiah's wifebecause he had another son born to him shortly after giving this prophecy.
Isaiah gave both his sons names the meaning of which were significant in terms of the history and destiny of Judah at that time. The name of his second son was Maher-shalal-hash-baz, meaning "the spoil is speedy; the plunder hasteneth." Both names were signs that Judah would be preserved and her enemies destroyed (The name of the first son was Shear-jashub, "[a] remnant [shall] return."). Had not Isaiah given them these names with this in mind?
However, it is very difficult to see how 'almah, an unmarried woman, could apply either to the wife of King Ahaz, whose firstborn son was Hezekiah, or to the wife of the prophet. Furthermore, neither of the names of Isaiah's two sons came close to being identified with the name Immanuel.
Granted that the historical setting belongs to Isaiah's day and to Judah's destiny under King Ahaz. Still, the perspective changes when Ahaz refuses to turn and depend on God and His promises. God did give Ahaz a sign for that day and hour. God intended that Judah should experience His presence and saving power.
But the second half of the chapter predicts Judah's ruin and overthrow. This is understandable, since King Ahaz refused God's guidance and protection. The whole prophecy was evidently conditional upon Ahaz's response to Isaiah's message from God.
The prophecy of the virgin who would conceive and bear a son with the name Immanuel signified that henceforth there would be no safe leadership or future for Israel until the prophecy was fulfilled. The hope of Israel now depended on an unnamed virgin through whom would come Immanuel, "God with us."
This prophecy of the Messiah to come was occasioned by the faithlessness of Israel's kings and people. The only hope for Israel was in Jesus, the son of Mary. Immanuel is identified with Jesus; nowhere in this context of Isaiah does it apply to any of the sons born at that time.
The mothers of the sons mentioned could hardly be referred to as 'almahsmaidens, unmarried women.