In our Advent series on the incarnation of God the Son, the coming into the world of the Maker of heaven and earth, the living God becoming a man to save us from our sins, we have so far considered its historicity and its mystery. We have argued that there is more than sufficient reason to believe that the incarnation is an event in history, in space and time, no matter the skepticism of many. There are a great many facts that people are reluctant to face and their reluctance has little to do with questions of evidence. And we have argued that the incarnation is, in fact, not only a great mystery, an event utterly beyond our comprehension, but that it is more of a mystery than even devout Christians often realize. Two natures in one person, each nature maintaining its integrity: who can understand this? Now I want to turn to the instrument of the incarnation, the means by which it came to pass: viz. the virgin birth or, more precisely, the conception of the human nature of the God/Man by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of his virgin mother. The account of the virginal conception of the Lord is found in two Gospels, Matthew and Luke. I have chosen to read Matthew’s account.
Now what follows clearly assumes that Matthew’s readers already knew who Joseph and Mary were and knew about the virgin birth. The “reverent reserve” with which the Gospel writers speak of the virginal conception is characteristic of the delicacy with which they deal with divine mysteries and, as any number of scholars have pointed out through the ages, is quite untypical of pagan myths and legends. But, notice again, Matthew’s interest is not simply to give an account of Christ’s birth – he really says nothing about his birth – but to demonstrate his divine origin and that his coming was prophesied in the ancient scriptures.
Matthew tells the story of the Lord’s birth from Joseph’s perspective as Luke tells it from Mary’s. In fact, you will find as you read Matthew 1 and 2 that it is Joseph, in every case, who does what needs to be done. He was the faithful father of the Messiah even though he had nothing to do with the conception of his son.
You can see by the term “divorce” that betrothal had a greater legal significance than it does in our day. If the male fiancé died during the betrothal the woman was called a widow. An engagement in our day may be broken without any legal step needing to be taken. Not so in that day. Joseph was a just man and a compassionate one. He could have publicly exposed what he naturally took to be her sin but he did not want to do that to her. It is helpful to remember that betrothal usually took place when the girl was in her early or middle teens.
No doubt Mary had protested her innocence and Joseph had been unable to believe her as we would be unable to believe someone with a similar story. But now the angel confirms what she had no doubt pled with Joseph to believe. Notice that Joseph is addressed as “son of David.” Matthew is reminding us that Jesus hails from the royal line as the Messiah must.
Joseph is instructed to “call his name Jesus,” a characteristically Jewish way of speaking. By giving him this name Joseph was formally and officially accepting the child as his own and Jesus thus became officially himself a “son of David” as lineage was marked through the father’s line, not the mother’s. “Jesus” as a name, both by its sound (it sounds like “he will save”) and its etymology (which was “Yahweh is salvation”), means “savior.” [France, 78]
Now the people were expecting that the Messiah would “save” them, but they thought he would save them from the Romans, same them from political and military oppression, and save them from financial dependence. Jesus’ mission was of a different kind. Right here at the beginning Matthew reminds us, as one commentator put it, in reference to Dorothy Sayers’ famous play, that “Jesus was not so much The Man born to be King, as he was The Man born to be Saviour.” [Barclay in Morris, 30] Salvation from sin was not what the Jews of that day were expecting from the Messiah. They thought they knew how to deal with sin; what they couldn’t deal with was the Roman army! Whenever that failure occurs, and it has occurred many times in the history of Israel and the Christian church since, when people begin to think that they have domesticated sin and that it is a power that they can control, an enemy that they can defeat and deal with, then you know that Holy Scripture has slipped from these peoples hands, because the Bible’s message, from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation, is that sin is a power we cannot control and an enemy we cannot defeat; God must deal with it for us. Matthew, at the outset of his Gospel, alerts his readers to the fact that Jesus’ mission was to be very different from what the people were expecting of the Messiah.
It is, of course, fascinating but unanswerable questions about the life of the Savior, the man, Jesus Christ are: what did he know about himself and when did he know it? The Scripture tells us that he did not know everything from the beginning; he had to learn like any human being must. We said last Lord’s Day morning that we must never allow his omniscience as God the Son to nullify his ignorance in his human nature as an authentic man, great as the mystery may be. So how did he come to know as a human being that he was the Messiah and God come in the flesh? He heard about his wonderful birth from his mother and father, to be sure. But later in the Gospels Mary herself seems unsure of the identity of her son. These were hard things to wrap one’s mind around. Much of his self-understanding must have been formed by his reading the ancient Scripture and learning there who and what the Messiah would be. Not simply Isaiah 2 and 7 and 9 and 40 and 42 and 52 and 53, but so many other texts regarding the coming king whose goings forth would be from of old, even from everlasting, and who would be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. Imagine the dawning understanding of the Son of God from the Word of God as he read, studied, pondered and meditated upon that Word with a sinless mind and heart and with the assistance of the Holy Spirit!
So far as we know, no one called Jesus “Immanuel.” It was not his name in the sense that Jesus was. It is more a description than a name. Fundamental to Matthew’s account is the concept of fulfillment. Jesus had been prophesied in the ancient Scriptures, who and what he would be and even how he would be born. Matthew is at pains to remind his readers that this – this remarkable birth – is what God had promised long ago.
The natural sense of the “until” is that Joseph and Mary had a normal married life after Jesus was born, contrary to the Roman Catholic doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The natural sense of Jesus being called her “firstborn” in Luke is that Mary had other children and that the “brothers” of Jesus mentioned in Matt. 12:46 were also her children by Joseph, also contrary to the notion that she remained a virgin the rest of her life.
In v. 21 we find the nub of the matter: Jesus of Nazareth was conceived in the womb of his mother, not by the ordinary process of human procreation, but by the direct act of God. Mary became pregnant without sexual intercourse, which is the sense of the words in v. 18, “before they came together.” And lest there be any confusion on this point it is reiterated in v. 25: not only had the baby not been conceived by the ordinary process of sexual union, Mary remained a virgin afterward as well, until the baby’s birth. This is the salient point: the baby in Mary’s womb did not get there in the ordinary way; his conception was a miracle. This extraordinary creative act on the part of the Holy Spirit was the means by which God the Son, the Second Person of the triune God, took to himself a human nature.
It is never said in Holy Scripture that the virgin birth was essential to the incarnation, that God could not have become man in any other way or by any other means. Perhaps the Father might have fashioned a human nature for his Son in some other way; we have no way of knowing. But there can be no doubt that this extraordinary beginning of the life of Jesus Christ as a man was peculiarly fitting, given the person who was thus conceived and given the significance of his life.
The virginal conception and birth of Jesus is the way the incarnation came about. And, mysterious as it all is, it is not difficult to see some of the reasons for such a unique conception and such a birth.
First, Jesus was born a human baby. This is key. Remember, the burden of the Bible’s teaching of the incarnation of God the Son is precisely that God has become also man so as to take our place and so as to endure the punishment our sins deserve. Only a man could suffer and die, so God became a man. So ordinary was the birth of the Lord Jesus as a biological event that, apart from Joseph and Mary, no one would have been the wiser. Mary began to show and then became heavy with child. She eventually went into labor as any pregnant mother would. She suffered labor pains as women do. She delivered a son as women have from the beginning of time. And the baby was a human baby in every respect but one. We will return to that later.
I once paid a hospital visit to one of our mothers who had just delivered a baby. They stayed in hospital longer in those days than they do today. It was the old Lakewood General Hospital, now torn down, and the rooms were small; two mothers in each with little extra room for guests. I sat in the only chair which happened to be at the head of the bed facing the same way. As we were chatting, the mother and I, the doctor and nurse came in to check on her and the baby. The nurse, obviously meeting both of us for the first time, looked at me, then at the baby; back and forth. Then she looked at me with a smile and said of the baby, “he looks just like you!” We said nothing at the time but after they left had a good laugh. The doctor must have set her straight afterwards because the nurse came back later to apologize. But isn’t that the way of it? We look for the family resemblance.
No doubt there was such in Jesus’ case. Why would there not have been? If he did not look like his father, surely he took some features from his mother and no doubt there were visitors in those first days who looked at the baby and at Joseph and said, “He looks just like you.” Still today people claim to detect resemblances that I can’t see. Do you think Joseph corrected them? Do you think he said, “Oh, no; actually I didn’t have anything to do with it”? Of course not. To the uninitiated such a remark could have meant only one thing and Joseph had never been a man to impugn the character of his wife and, knowing what he now knew, having been addressed on the point by an angel of God, he would never have permitted a taint of impropriety to attach to the birth of this baby boy.
The astonishing miracle that stands at the very center of the Christian faith is the incarnation, God becoming man, taking his place among us for us, undertaking the salvation we desperately needed, a salvation that could only be achieved by one who was both God and Man. The little baby born to Mary, however he was conceived, is the beginning of that genuine, authentic manhood.
Second, however obviously and completely Jesus was a human baby, born as all babies are, his having been conceived in the womb of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit is an impossibly dramatic demonstration that this human baby is utterly unique. There is something extraordinary about this man.
The Virgin Birth and the Resurrection make for book ends within which stands the Gospel narrative of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. A great miracle at the beginning and a great miracle at the end. But there is a great difference between them. The resurrection was a public event, witnessed by a considerable number of people. The risen Christ was seen alive after his death by hundreds of people. The resurrection was a self-authenticating work of divine power attested to by many eyewitnesses.
The Virgin Birth, on the other hand, however great a miracle, is not evidence so much as explanation. The conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb was not a conspicuous event open to public investigation as were his miracles or his resurrection. For that reason the Virgin Birth was never the spear-point of Christian preaching in those early days after Pentecost the way the Lord’s resurrection was, a fact in the public domain, an event with many witnesses.
The Virgin Birth was an event, the facts of which were known to only a few people. They may have been, they were, utterly reliable witnesses, whose account is utterly unlike concocted tales and, given the time and the culture, fundamentally counter-intuitive, but there were few of them. The shepherds had their remarkable story to tell, so did the Magi in due time, but the manner of the Lord’s conception in his mother’s womb was, in the nature of the case, a secret until it was told. But once told it confirms what is everywhere else taught us in the Word of God.
By becoming a man, the Son did not cease to be God. Jesus Christ is not a half-God, half-man creature; a demi-god as in the pagan myths. He is not a superman. He is God come in the flesh; God to be with us; God for us. And the Virgin Birth is the fitting demonstration of that fact.
Matthew draws attention to that with his reference to the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 in v. 23. Not only was the promise of a miraculous birth made long before through Isaiah but, still more, the issue of that birth would be a son called “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” Lest we mistake the burden of that title, Matthew has confirmed it for us in v. 21 where we read that the angel told Joseph that the son to be born would save his people from their sins. It is an explicit reference to the people of God and so to the baby as God himself. His people, in reference to this baby, identifies this baby with Yahweh, Jehovah, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God of Israel! When Paul will later say of Jesus that according to his human nature he was a son of David, he was making the same point. When speaking of Jesus Christ we must consider not one nature, but two: one divine and eternal, one human that a beginning in time.
It is this fact, of course, that makes all of this so amazing, so wonderful, and so impossibly significant. It is God, the living God, our Maker,who has become a man. No wonder that the birth of this man should be so utterly unique and unprecedented. There never was a man like this man. It is the combination of deity and humanity in this single person that supercharges his life with meaning for every human being. No wonder then his remarkable, miraculous birth.
As a Puritan put it long ago: “It became not God to have any mother but a maid, and it became not a maid to have any other son but God.”
So, the Virgin Birth bears its witness to the stupendous significance of Jesus of Nazareth as both God and Man. But there is more to it than even that! This miracle by which Jesus was conceived in the womb of his virgin mother serves as a sign of many things. In it is compressed the entire message of our faith, of the gospel, the good news of salvation in Christ. There are many ways in which this is so; let me enumerate a few of them.
First, the Virgin Birth is a grand demonstration of the utterly supernatural nature of the good news and the Christian message to mankind. Most every one you meet, whether they have ever articulated this to themselves, have put their hopes, what hopes they still may have, in human achievement. If only men will learn to do this; if only they will stop doing that; if only they will agree to get along and cooperate; if only they will cease their self-destructive behaviors; if only… And on a smaller scale, each individual hopes to do this or accomplish that or obtain this other thing by some measure of his or her achievement. It is all quite pedestrian, all quite banal really. And, of course, it is the counsel of despair. Men have been aware of their self-destructive behavior for millennia but have proved themselves unable to change it. Does anyone really think that politics will lead the modern world into the kingdom of peace? And no matter what small things a person, man or woman, might accomplish or obtain – and many of them manage very little when all is said and done – looming above every human life is the specter of death. What is the answer to that? Where is hope to be found? Well the one thing we know – or ought to know by now – is that it isn’t to be found in ourselves!
The Virgin Birth stands at the threshold of the New Testament, blatantly supernatural, defying our rationalism, our do-goodism, our self-confidence, our sentimentality and informs us that everything that follows belongs to the same supernatural order as itself, the same realm of divine power in and for human life. Therefore, if we find the Virgin Birth offensive or impossible to believe there is no point in going further. If our faith staggers at the Virgin Birth, what is it going to make of the feeding of the 5,000 or the raising of Lazarus; what of the transfiguration and supremely, what of the resurrection of the Lord on the third day? What will it make of the Lord’s astonishing assertion that he is the way, the truth, and the life and that no one comes to the Father except through him?
The Virgin Birth is a sentinel that guards the fully divine and supernatural gospel of God. It is a mystery that we cannot understand; it is a power that we cannot control. To receive the Virgin Birth is itself an act of faith, just as receiving Jesus himself as one’s savior is an act of faith and must be. It is the acknowledgement that our salvation will not come from within ourselves or be the achievement of our own efforts, but will occur when and only when we look away from ourselves to another.
Second, the Virgin Birth represents God’s verdict on human nature. The entire presupposition of the Virgin Birth is not only that man needs a redeemer but that he cannot produce one himself. The redeemer must come from outside, from above. God must provide the lamb! Though there is, to be sure, much that remains unexplained and that we cannot and will never understand, the Virgin Birth seems clearly to exclude even the possibility that the savior might have been born in the ordinary way of human beings.
And surely the primary reason for this is that it is in that way that we all remain sinners, sinners from birth, even, as the Scripture says in Psalm 51, from the time our mother conceived us. Here is the real scandal of the Virgin Birth. Not that it is a miracle. Not that we cannot understand it. But that we were in such desperate need of it! That is where the objections originate! That is where the quibbling over evidence begins.
Here is the problem identified so starkly by the Virgin Birth. It just wouldn’t do to have someone come to save us who was in every respect just like us. We needed someone better, someone who was not in thrall to sin and self and pride like we are. To be sure we needed God, but in our human Redeemer we needed a good man, a righteous man, a perfect man, and no such man has ever been produced by two sinful parents! Not once in all of human history! The first man was perfect for a time but then he didn’t have parents like ours or a sinful heritage like ours.
The reason there must be such a unique birth, such a stupendous beginning, such an advent or arrival from heaven, is because left to itself the human race is in a hopeless condition and every human being within it. There is something deeply wrong with us that could be fixed only by someone untainted by what taints us. He must become a man but he could not be a sinful man like us or he would be simply more of the problem and not the solution. Because our problem is sin! It isn’t the Roman army, it isn’t the economy, and it isn’t militant Islam. Sin is what has separated us from God, from our true nature; it is sin that has blasted the hopes and longings we all have because we have all been made in the image of the eternal, everlasting, righteous and loving God. Sin is what must be removed if we are to be reconciled to God and come again into the experience of true, original humanity as God intended it to be. But sin is so much a part of us we hand it on to our children! We cannot help it. If they come from us they come as sinners. Hence the Virgin Birth. A sinless man has been born. Utterly new possibilities have appeared!
Third, and last the Virgin Birth is a picture, an image of the way salvation comes to any individual. We are united to the Lord Jesus Christ and he to us which is why there are so many parallels between his life and ours as the children of God. We know this because the Apostle John draws our attention to it in the opening verses of his Gospel. There we read of the Lord Jesus:
“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Every child of God, John says, is born of God; not naturally, but supernaturally! When Mary asked the angel, who had come to tell her what would happen within her, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” The angel replied that 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.” Well, the same thing could be said of every Christian. Do you see the likeness between the two beginnings, the two births? Christ’s birth was a miracle; it came to pass by the power of God. But so is the spiritual renewal of every sinner. How does anyone find salvation, come to be saved? Well the Lord will use a person’s mind and a person’s heart – just as he used Mary’s flesh and blood – but neither intellect nor emotion nor the exercise of the will makes a sinner, a child of the Devil, into a child of God. It is God’s power operating in the intellect, through the emotions, and upon the will that turns an unbeliever into a believer.
Already in John 1 we read that to be saved people must be born again. There as in John 3 and the Lord’s famous conversation with Nicodemus, the Jewish leader who came to him at night, that new birth is the Spirit’s powerful work, a work of divine creation, a work creating new life. But in that it is very like the Spirit’s work in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Some of you can remember as if it were yesterday that work of the Spirit in your own life, how the power of the Most High came upon you and changed you in ways you had never so much as thought of, much less anticipated or longed for.
We do not know precisely what happened in the heart of Saul of Tarsus when met by the Lord Christ on the road to Damascus. We only know that he fell to the ground an inveterate unbeliever in Jesus and rose to his feet a loyal follower and servant of the Lord. We do not know how the Holy Spirit overshadowed the soul of Augustine in that garden near Milan, we only know that new life was created within him, spiritual life conceived in him, as his eyes fell on the last verse of Romans 13. Some become the Lord’s followers when very young, others as youths, still others as young adults, and some in middle and old age. But in every case that life begins as the work of the Holy Spirit creating new life, making a child of God out of a boy or a girl, a man or a woman who was not a child of God before. In that sense, in the sense that our salvation is and must be a work of the Spirit’s power, eternal human life is conceived in us as it was conceived in Mary’s womb.
What then is the message of the Virgin Birth? It is that salvation is a very great thing, a thing that could never have been achieved by us, by our own ingenuity, power, or goodness. It is the work of Almighty God granting life by his own grace and by means of his own power. This salvation is entirely a matter of this single person, this extraordinary individual, Jesus, the infant son of the Virgin Mary. He will save his people from their sins, which is, after all, all that must be done. We must be saved from our sins, from their power and their guilt. And only God can do this. And he has and he will. We can no more climb to heaven than Mary could conceive a child by the exercise of her own will. But God can carry us to heaven as his children just as he created new life in the womb of that girl and promises to do so for all who believe in this baby, this man: God himself, come to be a man, for us and our salvation.