The Virgin Birth of Christ
by Dr. A.J. Higgins (New Jersey, USA)
Apart from the resurrection of Christ, no truth is so maligned by the scientifically conditioned and rational mind as the virgin birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. While it is sung about in carols, recited in creeds, depicted in crèches, and sentimentalised in Christmas cards, surveys reveal that the majority of those who label themselves ‘Christian’, do not really believe it.
On the other hand, if it is indeed true, its implications are world-shaping and eternity-determining. This is far more than a question of life and death; it is a question of eternal life and eternal death. Little wonder that Larry King said that if it were true it would define history for him.
Before proceeding, a distinction needs to be made between the incarnation and the virgin birth. ‘Incarnation’ means that the Lord Jesus existed prior to the conception in the womb and that He voluntarily partook of flesh and blood (Heb 2:14, KJV), He ‘incarnated’ Himself. Not one of us ever became incarnate. We ‘became’ as a result of natural conception. His movement downward from eternal Godhead glory into the womb of Mary was His incarnation. However, the virgin birth was not the movement downward to humanity, it was the means by which He came into the world. What Scripture means by the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus Christ is that His birth was without the human agency of a man. He is fully man and of the seed of Mary; but Joseph, as we shall see, had no part in His conception.
He must come in the “likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3, KJV), and yet be totally free of any taint of sin. Roman Catholic theologians struggled with this and devised the doctrine of the ‘immaculate conception’, in which they posited that it was Mary who was without sin. Thus, she did not transfer a sin nature to her offspring. Obviously, this only pushed the problem of sinless humanity one generation back in time, plus it is not consistent with Scripture. The sinless humanity of the Lord Jesus was accomplished by the overshadowing of the Spirit of God at the time of conception (Luke 1:35). Beyond the statement of Scripture, we cannot venture.
Men deny the possibility of a virgin birth based on clear scientific grounds. In nature, where there is a birth not involving a male and female – hermaphroditic reproduction – the offspring is always female. In human generation, there is no scientific basis for a woman bearing a child without a male contribution. Adam was created, Eve was formed, and every other human being who has come into our world since then has come by natural generation. To come by way of a virgin birth would mean the suspension and over-riding of all the laws of generation. And that is exactly what happened. The God who created the laws is able to work above those laws when He so chooses.
We must eschew all speculation in dealing with the subject, and carefully choose our words. We must, as well, be clear and direct when Scripture is clear and direct. In considering this vital truth, we can consider it from a number of different sources:
The Summary from the Past
We do not build doctrine upon the creeds of the various councils of the early history of Christianity. We build our faith on the Word of God alone. The value of the ‘creeds’ and the writings of early believers is that they reveal to us what Christians believed who were far closer to the event than we are, being removed by two millennia. These so-called ‘Church fathers’, felt the need to delineate the truths of Christianity when they were being assailed by false doctrines.
Ignatius of Antioch defended the virgin birth and true humanity of Christ against Gnostic teaching as early as 110AD. Justin Martyr wrote in defence of it about 50 years later. There was a baptismal creed from the second century which stated, “Born of the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary”. The writings of men such as Ignatius and others showed unshakeable belief in the virgin birth of Christ. Councils and creeds from the first five centuries of Christian history all affirm the centrality of the doctrine of the virgin birth.
The Sign of the Prophet
The background of Isaiah Ch 7 is vital to grasp in any attempt to understand the prophecy which Isaiah gave to Ahaz. The King of Syria, Rezin, and the King of Israel, Pekah, conspired together to attack Ahaz in Judah and to remove the Davidic line from the throne. Their goal was to install their own king, the son of Tabeal. Here was a crisis which tested the faithfulness of God to His covenant with David. Despite the evil of Ahaz, God intervened. It was His honour and purpose which were at stake and not Ahaz’s welfare.
Isaiah came to give assurance to Ahaz, that despite the conspiracy, the enemies of Judah would be defeated (Isa 7:7-9). In condescending mercy, God offered to give Ahaz a sign. Ahaz, in mock humility, refused a sign (v10-12). In response, the Lord said that He would give a sign. What then issued from Him was the sign of the birth through a virgin: “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call His name, Immanuel” (Isa 7:14, KJV).
Theologians argue over the meaning of’ ‘virgin’, some insisting it can mean a young maiden and should not be restricted to a virgin. When Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek (the Septuagint), they used the Greek word ‘parthenos’, which is the unquestioned word for ‘virgin’. The Hebrew word ‘almah’ is used nine times in the OT and eight of its uses refer to a virgin. That Matthew, by inspiration, quotes it as ‘virgin’, in support of the angel’s message in verses 20 and 21 settles all arguments for us. ‘Immanuel’, or ‘God with us’, would be the name of the child born to the virgin.
The significance of the sign to Ahaz and to us is that though the enemy was at the door with intents to terminate the Davidic dynasty, God was looking down the corridor of time and promising a Son who would be born to a virgin and who would sit upon that throne. God’s promise to David was assured; Ahaz could rest in God’s Word.
The Signature of the Physician
The fullest and clearest account of the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus is given to us by Luke, the beloved physician. It is he who wrote of the encounter between Gabriel and Mary in Luke 1. It is Luke who tells us that she was a virgin (v27, KJV) and that she said, “I know not a man” (v34, KJV). It is Luke alone who gives us the detail of how the virgin birth would eventuate. His writing suggests, as well, how the Spirit of God prevented any transmission of sinful humanity to the humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ when he wrote, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee (supernatural power in her conception), and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee (supernatural preservation in her conception): therefore that which is begotten is holy” (1:35, Newberry). It is the angel’s response to Mary’s question, “How shall this be?…I know not a man”. The angelic reply makes it clear that it was totally apart from human agency.
We must avoid the danger of thinking that first-century physicians did not know how procreation occurred or that in their simplicity they were prone to accept and believe accounts that, with our enlightenment, we know to be impossible. Among the Greeks and Romans with their mythology and idolatry, they created fanciful legends of gods descending to earth for immoral acts and for vengeful deeds. It bears no resemblance to Luke’s account. There is nothing here about man creating God in his own image; just the opposite. He was ‘holy’ at His birth. Luke, the physician, ‘signed’ the birth certificate of the Lord Jesus and acknowledged the total uniqueness of His birth.
Scholars have verified Luke’s accounts as having historical accuracy whenever it has been possible to verify his writings and accounts. He was a thorough historian who took painstaking care in researching and documenting his findings.
The Syntax of the Passage
The precision and accuracy of the Word of God is cause for worship. We do not worship the Word of God; we worship the God of the Word. Matthew 1:16 is amazing in its precision. Throughout the preceding verses, which give the genealogy of the Lord Jesus through Joseph His legal father, the formula remains unchanged: this man begat this son, and so on. The pattern does not vary from verses two to fifteen. This is the way men beget men. However, when we arrive at verse 16, we find a difference. Jacob begat Joseph, consistent with all the other births and generations, but it does not say that Joseph begat Jesus. Instead, the Spirit of God changes the form and by changing the form protects and verifies the virgin birth: “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (Matt 1:16, KJV).
To fully appreciate the wonder of this verse, one more thing must be factored into our consideration. The word for “whom”, is feminine and not masculine. The Spirit of God is telling us (would I be allowed to say, shouting to us), that Joseph had no part in this conception and birth. The feminine “whom”, links the begetting solely to Mary. It was totally unique from all the births preceding it and that would ever follow. It involved only a woman and not a man. Joseph became the legal father when he named the child (v24). Apart from that, he was not involved in any manner with the conception of the Lord Jesus.
The Scriptures from the Publican
Matthew’s testimony to the virgin birth is extremely valuable. Along with the grammatical confirmation mentioned above, Matthew records the reaction of Joseph to the conception (Matt 1:19), a reaction which guarantees he had nothing to do with the conception. He tells us of the reassurance of the angelic message to him: “That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost” (1:20, KJV), and then the assurance that all this was consistent with the announcement made seven centuries earlier through Isaiah concerning the child of the virgin (Isa 7:14). As though to confirm everything, Matthew adds concerning Joseph that he “knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born Son” (Matt 1:25, KJV).
While Matthew does not give us the same details as Luke, his account corroborates all that Luke tells us and adds fresh insights into the virgin birth through the eyes of Joseph.
The Significance of the Truth
As has been suggested in the article thus far, the truth of the virgin birth is crucial to our salvation. While I have not touched on this additional truth, it can be shown that His true humanity is vital to His ministry at this moment as our High Priest. If He were not truly man, He could not be a kinsman-Redeemer. He must be “the seed of the woman” and have true unfallen and holy human nature to be a Kinsman. Mary’s womb was not a passive vehicle through which He came. He “was born of a woman” (Gal 4:4, Newberry). He is “the seed of David” (Rom 1:3, KJV). He is fully man; in truth, He is Man as God intended man to be. He is the perfect Man with real spirit, soul, and body. By way of the virgin birth, He came into our world apart from any taint of sin.
He must also, however, be Deity if He is going to be a Mediator between God and man. He must be Deity if His work at Calvary is going to be sufficient for all of humanity, and, in fact, sufficient for all of creation. It was only a sacrifice of infinite value that could bring infinite satisfaction for the infinite affront our sins were to the throne and character of God. A sacrifice short of deity would be short of complete atonement.
He is not, as some call Him, the God-man, as though He is half God and half man. The mystery of the hypostatic union is that He is fully God and fully Man; two natures in one person. He is the holy Man who came by means of His supernatural incarnation, apart from human effort, conceived in the womb of Mary by the power of the Spirit of God, and born in Bethlehem.
So keep singing Wesley’s stirring hymn, without any fear of what men might say:
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 incarnate deity.
Pleased with man as Man to dwell,
Jesus our Immanuel.