The Virgin Birth
This is part 4 of 4 on the Incarnation.
Jesus was born of a virgin. This is a unique glory. 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.1
Jesus’ distinctive birth isn’t a myth nor merely a random fact from the Gospels. It is a special honor conferred only on the Son of God. 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. Neither was likely to be gullible in the least. Matthew was a former tax-collector. Luke was a doctor. True—medicine has come a long way in twenty centuries, but it isn’t a recent discovery that virgins don’t have babies. From the very beginning of Jesus’ human life, his eternal Father set him apart as exceptional. The Gospel writers didn’t concoct a myth. Luke even consulted with Jesus’ mother2 who confirmed that Jesus’ birth was supernatural.3
In his masterful work The Person of Christ, 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. (37)
Blatantly supernatural. Defying our rationalism. And, sadly, a favorite target of liberal attack. Critical scholars have had a field day with the virgin birth—or at least tried to. As theological institutions drifted left in the twentieth century, mocking a literal virgin birth was in vogue. One may wonder how some liberal religion professors would have produced a semester’s worth of lectures without picking on this doctrine.
But the virgin birth survived the myopic hubris of modernism. It now seems more at home today among many postmodern types who grant that pure naturalism need not explain the birth of the God-man. A recent survey 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?
What is the significance of the virgin birth? To begin with, it highlights the supernatural. On one end of Jesus’ life lies his supernatural conception and birth; on the other, his supernatural resurrection and his ascension to God’s right hand. Jesus’ authenticity was attested to by the supernatural working of his Father.
Secondly, the virgin birth shows that humanity needs redeeming that it can’t 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 didn’t ask Mary for permission. He acted—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’ one person. The entry of the eternal Word into the world didn’t have to happen this way. But it did. Wayne Grudem writes,
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, 530)
God chose to mark the coming of his eternal Son, his 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 it did. God appointed it this particular way, and he appointed 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.4 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’ 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, 136)
Yes, the virgin birth is well worth contending for. And everything worth contending for is worth rejoicing in. No human person existed prior to conception like the preexistent Jesus. And no human being was virgin born except this man. This is a unique glory of the God-man. What a magnificent Lord, Savior, and Treasure!
Some theologians have stressed that the main significance is virginity in conception, not birth, and so offer the more precise term virgin conception. This may be helpful in capturing the key emphasis, but we likely are in no need of a new term because Matthew 1:25 states that Joseph “knew [Mary] not until she had given birth.” Mary was a virgin at Jesus’ conception, and she was still a virgin at his birth. ↩
Early in his Gospel, Luke twice records that Mary “treasured up all these things” in her heart (Luke 2:18, 51)—a comment that likely reflects some sort of personal communication with Mary. ↩
In his strong defense of the virgin birth against John Selby Spong, N. T. Wright observes, ↩
[F]irst-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? 78)
Macleod observes, “Dismissal of the virgin birth is seldom the end of an individual’s theological pilgrimage.” ↩