Jesus was born of a virgin. This is a glory unique to the one God-man.
Of the billions of humans who have lived throughout history, only one person entered the world in this way. There is only one mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5), and there is only one human who was virgin born.
Jesus’s distinctive birth is no myth or mere random fact from the Gospels. It is a special honor conferred only on the Son of God incarnate. And it is full of significance for knowing the person of Jesus and the God who has revealed himself in him.
Supernatural, Not Mythical
Matthew and Luke wrote the authoritative accounts. We have no good reason to think either was gullible in the least. Matthew was a former tax-collector and less likely to be deceived than most of us. Luke was a doctor. True, medicine has come a long way in twenty centuries, but it is no recent discovery that virgins don’t have babies. As N. T. Wright remarks in his strong defense of the virgin birth against John Selby Spong,
First-century folk knew every bit as well as we do that babies are produced by sexual intercourse. When, in Matthew’s version of the story, Joseph heard about Mary’s pregnancy, his problem arose not because he didn’t know the facts of life, but because he did. (Who Was Jesus?, page 78).
Luke even consulted personally with Jesus’s mother — he twice records that Mary “treasured up all these things” in her heart (Luke 2:18, 51), reflecting some kind of personal communication with her. She would have been able to confirm or deny that Jesus’s birth was supernatural.
On Guard at the Door of Christmas
From the very beginning of Jesus’s human life, his eternal Father set him apart as exceptional. Without any compromise of his true humanity, God gave markers that this man was more than mere man.
Scottish theologian Donald Macleod writes,
The virgin birth is posted on guard at the door of the mystery of Christmas; and none of us must think of hurrying past it. It stands on the threshold of the New Testament, blatantly supernatural, defying our rationalism, informing us that all that follows belongs to the same order as itself and that if we find it offensive there is no point in proceeding further. (The Person of Christ, page 37)
Blatantly supernatural. Defying our rationalism. And, sadly, a favorite target of modern critical attack. But it now appears the virgin birth survived the myopic hubris of modernism. It seems more readily embraced today, if only slightly, among the more postmodern types who grant that pure naturalism need not explain the birth of the God-man. One 2003 poll found that 79% of Americans believe in the virgin birth, and even more surprisingly, 27% of self-proclaimed non-Christians affirm the doctrine.
Why the Virgin Birth?
But what is the significance of the virgin birth? Why might it be that God chose to do things this way?
To begin with, it highlights the supernatural. On one end of Jesus’s life lies his supernatural conception and birth; on the other, his supernatural resurrection and his ascension to God’s right hand. At both ends, the God-man’s authenticity was attested to by the supernatural working of his Father.
Secondly, the virgin birth shows that humanity needs a saving that it cannot bring about for itself. The fact that the human race couldn’t produce its own redeemer implies that its sin and guilt are profound and that its savior must come from outside.
Thirdly, in the virgin birth, God’s initiative is on display. The angel didn’t ask Mary about her willingness. He announced, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:31). God doesn’t ask Mary for permission. He acts — gently but decisively — to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).
Finally, this virgin birth hints at the fully human and fully divine natures united in Jesus’s one person. The entry of the eternal Word into the world didn’t have to happen this way. But it did happen this way. Here’s how Wayne Grudem puts it:
God, in his wisdom, ordained a combination of human and divine influence in the birth of Christ, so that his full humanity would be evident to us from the fact of his ordinary human birth from a human mother, and his full deity would be evident from the fact of his conception in Mary’s womb by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. (Systematic Theology, page 530)
God chose to mark the coming of his eternal Son, his specially anointed one, with this extraordinary birth.
Must We Believe in the Virgin Birth?
If God didn’t have to send his Son in this way, then is it important that we believe in the virgin birth? The answer is a resounding yes. It didn’t have to happen this way, but God did make it to happen this way. God appointed it this particular way, and chose Matthew and Luke to record it clearly in their Gospels. To deny this doctrine is to open the door to denying anything plainly affirmed in the Bible, as Macleod observes, “Dismissal of the virgin birth is seldom the end of an individual’s theological pilgrimage.” Mark Driscoll is right to claim,
If the virgin birth of Jesus is untrue, then the story of Jesus changes greatly; we would have a sexually promiscuous young woman lying about God’s miraculous hand in the birth of her son, raising that son to declare he was God, and then joining his religion. But if Mary is nothing more than a sinful con artist then neither she nor her son Jesus should be trusted. Because both the clear teachings of Scripture about the beginning of Jesus’s earthly life and the character of his mother are at stake, we must contend for the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. (The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World, page 136)
Yes, Jesus’s extraordinary and magnificent virgin birth is well worth contending for. And everything worth contending for is worth rejoicing in. No human person ever has existed prior to conception, except the preexistent Jesus. And no human being was virgin born like this man. This is a unique glory of the God-man.
This post is a reversed version of “The Virgin Birth” which originally appeared at Desiring God on December 24, 2007.
For more Christmas reflections on the person of Christ —