The virgin birth
This Christmas countless people will sing Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ including the verse:
Christ by highest heaven adored
Christ, the everlasting Lord.
Late in time behold him come
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus our Immanuel.
Unlike other religions, the Christian faith rests on the truth of historical events. If Jesus of Nazareth never lived, then Christianity is false. If he did not perform miracles to demonstrate his divine nature, then Christianity is disproved. The same is true if he was not crucified by the Romans under Pontius Pilate or if, having been executed, he did not rise physically from the dead and appear to his disciples.
But there is another little-understood historical claim that also underlies the Christian faith, namely, the virgin birth – or more strictly, the virgin conception – of Jesus Christ. Why is this important?
Some 800 years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah wrote: ‘Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel’ (Isaiah 7:14; Immanuel means ‘God with us’).
Isaiah’s words were addressed originally to King Ahaz of Judah some 800 years before Christ, but the New Testament claims they had their ultimate fulfilment in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 1:22-23).
Isaiah’s prophecies overflow with references to one who would one day come to save his people from their sins – and who would, incredibly, be born without insemination by a human father. The New Testament writers attached great significance to this miraculous birth because for them it demonstrated that Jesus was no ordinary man but was indeed ‘the Son of God’.
As the Christian Church grew, and her fundamental beliefs became encapsulated in her creeds and statements of faith, the New Testament position regarding the virgin birth came to be regarded as fundamental to the faith.
For example, the Apostles’ Creed states: ‘I believe … in Jesus Christ, [God’s] only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost [and] born of the virgin Mary’.
Humanly speaking, of course, a virgin birth is impossible. But in dealing with the virgin birth of Christ we are dealing with God – and if God is God then nothing should be impossible (Luke 1:37). Christians believe that in Jesus no mere human was born but that the pre-existent and eternal Son of God became incarnate as a man.
People sometimes speak of ‘the miracle of life’. We know what they mean, but we also know that a newborn baby, although wonderful, is not really miraculous. Babies are born every day but miracles, by their very nature, are unique one-off events.
In the virgin birth of Christ we are dealing with an incomparable and never-to-be-repeated event. Christ’s conception was not natural but supernatural – an act of God not man.
When the virgin Mary – a young Jewish girl, living in Nazareth in northern Israel – was enabled to conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit, she was engaged to be married to a man called Joseph. Mary had been betrothed to Joseph but ‘before they came together she was found with child of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 1:18).
On realising that his fiancée was pregnant, Joseph was horrified and devastated. Although he loved her he thought the worst. Surely Mary had been unfaithful and broken her pledge. His hopes of marriage had ended before they had begun. A quiet ‘divorce’ seemed Joseph’s only option.
But as he considered this, an angel from God ‘appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you shall call his name Jesus [Saviour], for he will save his people from their sins”’ (Matthew 1:20-21). It took an envoy from heaven to make Joseph change his mind!
Matthew next emphasises that this was all part of God’s redemptive plan and in complete accord with what had been prophesied hundreds of years previously. To prove his point he then quotes the very verse from Isaiah with which we opened: ‘All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means, God with us)’ (Matthew 1:22-23).
Significantly it is Luke’s Gospel that gives the greatest detail in recording the virgin birth of Christ. Significant, because Luke was a medical doctor – ‘Luke the beloved physician’ (Colossians 4:14).
Only Luke relates the virgin birth from Mary’s viewpoint. Perhaps Mary confided in Dr Luke and disclosed directly to him details withheld from other Gospel writers. Thus in the first chapter of his Gospel Luke recorded for posterity how Mary’s pregnancy had come about.
‘The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary … And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High…”’
Mary replied, ‘How shall this be, since I have no husband?’ And the angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God’ (Luke 1:26ff.).
Christ’s conception and birth, then, cannot be explained apart from the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit. He had no human father. God was always his Father and Christ existed before his birth on earth.
Calling Christ ‘the Word’ (Greek logos) the fourth Gospel writer, John, sums it up thus: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:1,14). How did this happen? By his being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary in fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy.
From a biblical perspective, the virgin birth of Christ was not only a historical reality but an absolute necessity. Put negatively, if Jesus had had a human father he would not have been sinless, for he would have inherited the sinful nature common to all mankind.
But if Christ had not been sinless, he could never have redeemed sinners, for only a sinless one could offer his life as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of others. Had Christ been born as a mere son of Adam – and not the Son of God – his death at Calvary would have been of no avail to us.
Being descendants of Adam we are all sinners by nature and practice – ‘sin came into the world through one man [Adam] and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned’ (Romans 5:12). We have inherited Adam’s sinful nature.
Christ, however, did not. His conception by the Holy Spirit ensured that no taint of sin was transmitted to his human nature. He is the sinless Son of God and so qualified to be the Saviour of sinners.
The apostle Paul explains the matter in words that are at once simple and profound. When Christ offered himself on the cross as an atonement for sin, ‘[God] made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Because his human nature was free from sin, Jesus’ blood shed at Calvary has the power to save others from their sin. Christ’s supernatural birth and Christ’s supernatural blood are inextricably linked. Redemption is found only through the shed blood of Jesus Christ – the sacrificial lamb of God, without spot or blemish (1 Peter 1:19).