In light of the approach of Christmas—a time when Christians celebrate the incarnation of Christ—I’d like to highlight the reality and importance of the virgin birth, or more properly, the virgin conception of Jesus Christ. Until recently, the virgin birth has been acknowledged as an important doctrine of the Christian faith. The early church fathers, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene and Chalcedon Creeds, the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, the Reformed Belgic Confession, the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, and the Westminster Confession of Faith all bear witness to the church’s faith in the virgin birth.
However, in recent years some Bible scholars have questioned the veracity and challenged the importance of this doctrine. Some within the church no longer believe it to be true.
The Waning of the Virgin Birth
In 1976 a ministerial student of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary wrote a doctoral thesis entitled, “A Sociological Analysis of the Degrees of Christian Orthodoxy among Selected Students in the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.” After collating statistics, he concluded that “the more education seminary students receive at Southern Seminary, the less likely they believe that the Bible is true.” The figures are staggering with reference to the virgin birth. After attending seminary, 33% of the students lost their faith in the virgin birth!1
These are the so-called “faithful men” (2 Tim 2:2) who have filled the pulpits of many churches in order to teach God’s people what they ought to believe. No wonder many Christians today do not see the importance of the virgin birth! To make matters worse, some pastors who claim to believe it don’t preach it. One pastor said that though he could not deny the virgin birth, neither could he teach it. When asked to explain his position, he replied, “When I have something I can’t comprehend, I just don’t deal with it.”2 If pastors follow that line of thinking, what will happen to other foundational doctrines like the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the sovereignty of God, the miracle of the new birth, or the resurrection of the body?
In light of these unsettling modern trends, I would like to spend a few moments this evening underscoring both the reality and also the importance of the virgin birth (or conception) of Jesus Christ.
The Reality of the Virgin Birth
I’d like to call three witnesses to the stand:
The Witness of Isaiah 7:14
Syria and Israel are in a confederacy to overthrow Judah. Judah, on the other hand, is attempting to make a league with Assyria, rather than seeking the help of Yahweh. In light of that, Isaiah the prophet goes to King Ahaz and tells him not to worry. God is going to frustrate the plans of Syria and Israel. He would be faithful to His promise to perpetuate David’s dynasty. In order to confirm the Lord’s intent, the prophet commands Ahaz to ask for a sign.
Ahaz declines—not out of humility, but out of pride. In reality, Ahaz doesn’t want anything to do with Yahweh. Consequently, the prophet responds to him in verse 13 :
Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (Isa 7:13-14).
The context makes clear that the child in view is the coming Messiah. In fact, the prophecy continues through the rest of chapter 7 and chapter 8 and then comes to its crescendo in 9:6-7:
For a child will be born for us, a son will be given to us, and the government will be on His shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. The dominion will be vast, and its prosperity will never end. He will reign on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish and sustain it with justice and righteousness from now on and forever. The zeal of the LORD of Hosts will accomplish this. (Isa 9:6-7, CSB)
According to Isaiah 7:14, this Messianic child would be conceived in a virgin’s womb. The Hebrew term translated “virgin” (עלמה) is used six other times in the Old Testament (Gen 24:43; Exo 2:8; Psa 68:26; Prov 30:19; Cant 1:3; 6:8). In all these texts, the word clearly refers to a young woman. In most of them, it clearly refers to a young virgin. In a few of the texts, it’s difficult to be dogmatic whether a virgin is clearly in view. It may be a reference to a young woman without reference to her sexual experience.
Some modern scholars capitalize on the ambiguity in the term and argue that Isaiah 7:14 be translated, “a young maiden shall be with child” (TEV). However, I believe there are several good reasons for translating the term “virgin” in Isaiah’s passage:
(1) Despite the degree of ambiguity, the Hebrew term normally refers to a virgin
(2) One of the main points of the prophecy is judgment against the house of David (7:13). Since the house of David, represented by Ahaz, will not trust in God for deliverance, God will raise up a Deliverer apart from David’s physical seed. In other words it will not be one of David’s descends who will father the Messiah, but God will bypass David’s physical seed and cause a virgin to conceive miraculously. That seems to be one of the main points of this prophecy.
(3) The translators of the LXX, a Greek translation of the OT, used the Greek word παρθενος (parthenos), which almost always means “virgin.” It’s important to remember that the LXX was written 200 years before the time of Christ, and is therefore an unbiased witness.
(4) The Jewish interpreter Rashi (A.D. 1040-1105), who is considered one of the best Jewish interpreters of all time, who had a direct influence upon Martin Luther, and who spent much of his effort refuting Christian interpretations of the OT, had this to say about Isaiah’s prophecy:
Behold the ’alma [עלמה] shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name “Immanuel” which means that our Creator shall be with us. And this is the sign: The one who will conceive is a girl who never in her life has had intercourse with any man.3
(5) Matthew follows the LXX rendering and uses παρθενος (parthenos), the usual Greek term for virgin.
That introduces us to the second witness I want to call to the stand
The Witness of Matthew 1:18-25
If Isaiah leaves room for doubt, Matthew erases all doubt. In verse 18-25, he gives us seven clear indications of Jesus’ virgin birth:
- Verse 16: He breaks his monotonous pattern in the genealogy by making Mary, not Joseph, the “begetter” of Jesus.
- Verse 18: He underscores that Mary’s conception took place “before they came together.”
- Verse 18: He explicitly identifies the Holy Spirit, not Joseph, as the agent of Jesus’ birth.
- Verse 19: Joseph’s plan to divorce her implies he wasn’t the father.
- Verse 20: The angel declares, “that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.”
- Verse 23: Matthew uses the Greek word parthenos, the usual term for virgin.
- Verse 25: Joseph kept her a virgin, literally, “he was not knowing her until the child was born.” [No physical relationship!]
Can it be any clearer? The only way one can wiggle around this is to say either that Matthew is crazy or that he has purposely deceived his readers to believe a fable. And if Christ’s virgin birth is a fable, how shall he trust Matthew’s witness regarding the incarnation, the vicarious atonement, and the resurrection from the dead?
The Witness of Luke 1:26-27, 34-35; 3:23
Since Matthew’s word is God’s word, we don’t need another witness. But God has condescended to our weakness, and He’s given Luke to verify Matthew.
- 1:26-27: Luke uses the term parthenos to describe Mary, and he also describes her as “betrothed,” which normally presupposes virginity.
- 1:34: Note Mary’s astonished response to the angelic announcement: question, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” Obviously, believed in the virgin birth.
- 1:35: Here’s the answer to her question: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.” This is nothing less than a Divine miracle.
- 3:23: “Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, the son of Heli.”
So concludes the witness of Isaiah, Matthew, and Luke. There are at least two other passages which seem to hint at the virgin birth. Genesis 3:15, the so-called “protoevangel” (first gospel), depicts the defeat of the Serpent through the “offspring of the woman.” Interestingly, it’s not the man’s but the woman’s seed who’ll reverse the curse. In Galatians 4:4, Paul describes the Son of God as “born of a woman,” which may not only hark back to Genesis 3:15 but also highlight Christ’s unique birth. In light of these passages of Scripture, the evidence for the virgin birth (or virgin conception) of Christ is not sparse.
However, this still does not satisfy some modern scholars. They will admit that both Matthew and Luke taught the virgin birth and that the early church believed the virgin birth. But they construe the doctrine as a primitive, superstitious, and pre-scientific teaching. Twenty-first century Christians, they argue, can no longer believe such mythical legends.
I personally encountered this kind of skepticism between my sophomore and junior years of college. While studying Spanish in Costa Rica, I lived in the home of a Tican family along with a Southern Baptist seminary professor who also was studying Spanish so that he could teach in Venezuela.
One day I discovered that Dr. Willett did not hold to conservative view of the Bible. So I decided to investigate whether his weak doctrine of Scripture had affected the way he viewed other doctrines in Scripture. Accordingly, I composed a doctrinal questionnaire, and one of the questions read as follows: “Do you believe in the literal-historical virgin birth of Christ?” Here’s how he answered:
Matthew and Luke and the church through the ages used the idea of the virgin birth, that is, that Jesus was conceived without a human father. . . . I certainly affirm that. But to press this theological statement into a “biological fact” calls into question the full humanity of Jesus.
Can you detect the subtlety of his denial? He affirms the “theological statement” on the one hand, but he rejects the “biological fact” on the other. Another seminary professor explained it this way: “The issue is not that a baby is born of a virgin, but that individuals can appreciate something special about Jesus of Nazareth.”4
The Importance of the Virgin Birth
Does it really matter whether we believe in the virgin birth? Is the biological fact of the virgin birth a necessity, or can we dispense with that doctrine and still have a “special” Jesus?
Of course, adherence to God’s Word is always important! We may not be able to understand the full significance of a particular doctrine or portion of Scripture. However, if God has revealed a doctrine in Scripture for us to believe, then we had better believe it.5 With that introductory comment aside, let me try to set forth at least four reasons why I believe that the virgin birth (conception) is important:
1. The virgin birth of Christ fosters faith in the incarnation of His divine nature and the moral purity of His human nature.
Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name Him Immanuel, which is translated “God is with us” (emphasis added; Matt 1:22, CSB)
Could Jesus have been born naturally by the agency of a human father as well as a human mother, and yet be the sinless incarnate Son of God? I’m not sure we can be dogmatic either way. Perhaps God could have united the pre-incarnate Son’s nature with a human nature produced by a biological father and mother. Certainly, “With God all things are possible.”6
However, I do believe this is true—Had Jesus been born just like anyone else, it would have been much more difficult for his disciples to believe in and confess His incarnation and deity. Can you imagine how much more difficult it would have been for Mary to join the other disciples in the early church (Acts 1:14) in worshipping her son as the Son of God, if He had been born the same way her other children had been born?
I’m suggesting that the virgin conception was designed by God to be a sign—a miracle—that something wonderful and out-of-the-ordinary had taken place. God was manifest in the flesh in order to save His people from their sins. And my argument is that the reality of the virgin birth facilitates and fosters faith in this great truth. Conversely, I believe a denial of the virgin birth tends to undermine one’s faith in the reality of Jesus’ divine nature and incarnation.
2. The virgin birth of Jesus Christ reminds us that God must initiate man’s salvation.
I believe that there are interesting parallels between the virgin birth of Christ and the new birth of the believer. Consider, for example, the text in John 1:12-13:
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God–children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1:12-13, NIV).
Do you see the parallel with the virgin birth? It’s almost as if John borrowed his language from Matthew’s Gospel. And John’s point in verse 13 is to underscore the fact that God takes the initiative in salvation. Our new birth is not the result of natural descent, nor the result of human decision, nor the result of a husband’s will. It’s not like a husband who tells his wife, “Honey, I’ve decided it’s time for us to have children.” Man has nothing to do with it, says John. God takes the initiative because salvation is of the LORD. In the same way, when God brings the Savior into the world supernaturally because salvation is of the LORD.
It shouldn’t be surprising that many of those denominations that have jettisoned the doctrine of the virgin birth have also replaced the doctrine of the new birth with the doctrines of self-esteem, self-fulfillment, and self-improvement.
3. The virgin birth of Jesus Christ calls for our commitment to the supernaturalism of Christianity.
Many do not believe in the virgin birth because it does not agree, they say, with the laws of natural science. They claim that it’s too hard for 21st century people to believe in such a miraculous thing–as if it were really easy for 1st century people to believe such a miraculous thing! What’s more, some modern theologians believe it’s possible to discount the historical reality of the virgin birth, and yet still hold on to orthodox Christianity. But in actual practice, this is rarely the case.
Most of the great doctrines of the Bible are interconnected. The Bible is somewhat like one of those sweaters made of interconnected yarn. If you try to pull out and remove a loose thread, what tends to happen? The entire garment begins to unravel. Dr. Willett, whom I cited above, denied not only the virgin birth but also a historical Adam and Eve, many supernatural miracles described in the Bible, and the literal bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead.
4. The virgin birth of Jesus Christ tests the strength of our commitment to the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.
The Psalmist declared, “Therefore I consider all your precepts to be right; I hate every false way” (Ps 119:128, ESV). The Apostle Paul said, “Let God be true though every one were a liar” (Rom 3:4, ESV). Jesus Himself prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17, ESV).
Do you feel the same way about God’s word as these men do? Do you feel that way about Matthew 1:18-25? Do you believe what Isaiah, Matthew, and Luke teach about the virgin birth of Jesus?
Believe in the Virgin Birth!
Perhaps one of my readers is saying to himself, “But it’s difficult to believe,” That may be true. But was it easy for Abraham to believe that his wife who had been barren for many years through their marriage and who had been through menopause could actually have a son? Was it easy for Moses and the Israelites to believe that God could part the Red Sea and deliver them from the Egyptian army? Was it easy for Joshua and the Israelites to believe that God would deliver over the fortified city of Jericho by simply marching around it seven times? Was it easy for Joseph to believe his pregnant fiancé was still a virgin? Is it easy for you and I to believe that Jesus Christ satisfied God’s wrath for our sin, rose from the dead, and is right now alive at the right hand of God?
Believing in God’s word has never been easy. But those who believe will not be sorry in the end! Consider these words in closing …
Great peace have they who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble (Psa 119:165, NIV).
Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me (Matt 11:6, NIV).
- N. W. Hollyfield Jr., “A Sociological Analysis of the Degrees of Christian Orthodoxy among Selected Students in the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary” (Masters Thesis; Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1976). Of course, a lot has changed since this thesis was published. Under the leadership of Dr. Albert Mohler, SBTS has resumed its commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture and evangelical doctrine.
- Cited in John MacArthur, Matthew 1-7, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 13.
- Mikraoth Gedoloth on Isaiah 7:14.
- I lifted this citation from my lecture notes but unfortunately cannot put my finger on the source.
- As Albert Mohler recently remarked, “Even if the Virgin Birth was taught by only one biblical passage, that would be sufficient to obligate all Christians to the belief. We have no right to weigh the relative truthfulness of biblical teachings by their repetition in Scripture. We cannot claim to believe that the Bible is the Word of God and then turn around and cast suspicion on its teaching.” “Must We Believe in the Virgin Birth?” (accessed Dec 20, 2011).
- Some theologians have argued that the virgin birth was absolutely necessary to preserve Jesus’ human nature from the taint of sin. I’m not sure we can be dogmatic about that. In the first place, this argument seems to assume that one’s sinful nature is passed on biologically through the father rather than the mother. Yet, David does not say, “In sin did my father beget me,” but “In sin did my mother conceive me” (Psa. 51:4). Personally, I believe that the Holy Spirit’s agency and intervention was the determining factor of Christ’s sinless human nature. This may be hinted at in Luke 1:35: “The angel replied, “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 holy; he will be called the Son of God” (NET). So in my view, the Spirit’s special role in Jesus’ birth is what secures his sinlessness. However, since the virgin birth serves to highlight the Spirit’s special agency in Christ’s birth and since that supernatural agency is essential to preserve his human nature from sin, then I believe the virgin birth at least indirectly serves to highlight Jesus’ sinless human nature and to foster faith in a “spotless” Lamb of God.