The Virgin Birth
Nothing gives Satan greater pleasure than for men to doubt God. Thus on the very first pages of Scripture we find the serpent sowing in man’s mind the idea that God had not been entirely straight with him (see Gen. 3). What a world of misery and suffering has flowed from that primeval inability to take God at His Word! But that is not all. If man threw away paradise, he is in grave danger of throwing away the gracious salvation now offered to him––and for the same reason. Thus if God’s Word announces that salvation is in Christ only, man tells us we must not take the meaning so strictly. If the Bible tells us Christ was raised from the dead, man says that is not quite the sense. If the Scriptures speak of an eternal place of torment, man cautions that need not mean it to be everlasting. In the name of scholarship, the Bible is thus reduced, if not to a pack of lies, to a mystical volume whose message can be taken for whatever we should like it to be. God’s Word is thus lost, and with it the attendant knowledge of salvation. If we are ever to enter blessing, we must take God to mean what He says: “let God be true, and every man false” (Rom. 3: 4).
Such facts are not less true when we take up the matter of the ‘Virgin Birth’––a doctrine which underpins both the truth of Christ’s person, and the reality of our redemption. If this truth is jettisoned, then in reality we jettison Christianity, for without the Virgin Birth all is lost. Some would have us believe that this is overstating the question. Such have either a very shallow grasp of what is involved, or if they do grasp it, are nothing but enemies of the truth.
The background to the Virgin Birth is the remarkable prophecy of Isaiah 7: 10–17, a prophecy which the critics have laboured long and hard to undermine. The setting of the prophecy is given in verses 1–9, 2 Kings 16 and 2 Chronicles 28. Ahaz, the evil king of Judah, had been attacked by the kings of Israel and Syria, but instead of turning to Jehovah for help, had sought assistance from the king of Assyria. God offered to give the king a manifest sign of the divine power available to him, but Ahaz refused, having already placed his trust in Assyria. At this point, Isaiah turns away from speaking to Ahaz personally, and addresses the whole Davidic line: “And he said, Hear then, house of David: Is it a small matter for you to weary men, that ye weary also my God? Therefore will the Lord himself give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and shall bring forth a son, and call his name Immanuel” (vs 13, 14). There ought not, therefore, to have been any fear as to the continuance of the royal line. The prophet then goes on to predict the destruction of both Israel and Syria “before the child knoweth to refuse the evil and to choose the good” (v16)––that is, when the child was still young.
Now like many prophecies, this one has a dual fulfillment (see for example, Hosea 11: 1, fulfilled in both Israel and Christ) and all its parts are not fulfilled at the same time (comp. Is. 61: 1, 2 and Luke 4: 16–21). It had a partial fulfillment almost immediately when Isaiah “came near to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son; and Jehovah said unto me, Call his name, Maher–shalal–hash–baz. For before the lad knoweth to cry, My father! and, My mother! the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria shall be taken away before the king of Assyria” (Is. 8: 3, 4). The defeat of Syria is given in 2 Kings 16: 9, and Israel’s destruction, which began in 2 Kings 15: 29 was complete by 2 Kings 17: 6. Despite this, however, it is clear that Isaiah’s son was not called Immanuel, and so while he fulfilled the latter part of the prophecy detailing Israel and Syria’s ruin, the same cannot be said of the earlier section. The prophetess and her child are but a vague allusion to the future promised son of a virgin. That sign was not addressed to Ahaz, and nor would he see it. It was given to the House of David and representatives of that house would see it in a day to come––when Christ was born of Mary.
Now in OT times God spoke to man through channels––the prophets––but in the Son He speaks as Himself: “God having spoken in many parts and in many ways formerly to the fathers in the prophets, at the end of these days has spoken to us in [the person of the] Son” (Heb. 1: 1, 2). Thus when the Lord Jesus walked and talked among men, this was no mere human being, however exalted and holy, but the Word become flesh (see John 1: 14)––the Word that was with God and the Word that was God (see v1). The entrance into the world of such a One could not be anything short of miraculous in nature––and this fact is attested to us in the Virgin Birth.
As we have seen already, the unique nature of the Lord’s birth was prophesied by Isaiah: “Therefore will the Lord himself give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and shall bring forth a son, and call his name Immanuel” (Is. 7: 14). It is this Scripture that the angel quotes to Joseph in Matt. 1: 22, 23 and says was then fulfilled: “Now all this came to pass that might be fulfilled which was spoken by [the] Lord, through the prophet, saying, Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which is, being interpreted, ‘God with us’.” Thus the babe of Bethlehem’s manger is set apart from all other men that have been born into this world––for to be born of a virgin is a miracle of the first magnitude.
The notion of any kind of miracle is of course unacceptable in a world that refuses to believe in God, and so the scholars tell us that almah, the Hebrew word translated ‘virgin’ in Isaiah 7 simply means a woman of marriageable age, and that if the prophet had meant virgin, he would have used another word, bethulah, instead. Unbelief grasps readily at this, but it is stupidity not scholarship. How could the birth of a son to an unmarried woman be a sign? A sign is something extraordinary––as the birth of a son to a virgin would be. If we look at other occurrences of almah in the OT there is not one where ‘virgin’ would not be a fitting translation (see Ex. 2: 8; Ps. 68: 25; Prov. 30: 19; S. of S. 1: 3; 6: 8). This is not the case with bethulah as this is sometimes used for a married woman (for example Joel 1: 8), and so often requires qualification to clarify whether or not ‘virgin’ is intended. Thus in Genesis 24: 16: “And the maiden was very fair in countenance; a virgin (bethulah), and no man had known her” (my emphasis). Almah occurs later in the same passage but requires no such qualification: “let it come to pass that the damsel (almah) who cometh forth to draw [water]” (v43). It is thus clear that Isaiah uses the best word for his purpose.
What clinches the argument, however, is the testimony of the Holy Spirit Himself. In guiding the translation of the Hebrew of Isaiah 7 into the Greek of Matthew 1 He ensured that the Greek word used was parthenos––a word which always means virgin. Further testimony is given by the translators of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, who also used parthenos for almah in Isaiah 7.
There is more to all this, however, than simple opposition to a miracle. It is what is implied by the miracle that provokes the most hostility. The Lord’s extraordinary birth proved that He was no ordinary man, hence His name: Emmanuel––“God with us” (Matt. 1: 23). As born of a virgin, none other than God could be His Father: “But Mary said to the angel, How shall this be, since I know not a man? And the angel answering said to her, [The] Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and power of [the] Highest overshadow thee, wherefore the holy thing also which shall be born shall be called Son of God” (Luke 1: 34, 35). If Mary were not a virgin, then the Lord’s paternity would be open to question, and thereby His claim to be the Son of God. But as born of a virgin, only God could be His Father. The Jews understood the implications of such a claim even if many do not today: “For this therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he had not only violated the sabbath, but also said that God was his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5: 18). Hence in Isaiah 9 His name is given as “Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Father of Eternity, Prince of Peace” (v 6)––these are all divine titles. A claim to be Son of God is a claim to deity.
Now just as “Herod ... was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt. 2: 3) at the thought of the One born king, so today sinful man is uneasy with the thought that Jesus Christ was God––a God with whom he will surely have to do. That is why every effort is made to shut our eyes to the clear evidences of Christ’s deity. To accomplish that purpose the Enemy will extol His manhood to the highest degree. Allow Christ to be the fairest product of humanity, to be lifted far above every other man in excellence and achievement, but never allow for one moment that He is God. Yet give up His Deity and you have lost Christianity––you have lost everything that is vital and blessed in Christ.
See how Scripture presents the incoming of Christ. The first indication of this is given in the first book of Moses when the Lord said to the serpent “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; he shall crush thy head, and thou shalt crush his heel” (Gen. 3: 15). Where did Moses get the idea of the woman’s seed? When Seth, the head of the promised line was born, it was by the seed of man, and so throughout all the succeeding generations. If Moses had not been inspired as he wrote Genesis, he would never have written such a thing. Yet the prophecy was of Christ––He was the promised seed––and being born of a virgin, He could not be of the seed of man. Scripture is exact in its choice of words.
Turn over to Micah 5: “(And thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall he come forth unto me [who is] to be Ruler in Israel: whose goings forth are from of old, from the days of eternity.) Therefore will he give them up, until the time when she which travaileth shall have brought forth” (vs 2, 3). The One to be born in Bethlehem as the king is divine––“whose goings forth are from of old, from the days of eternity”. He has a nameless mother (“she which travaileth ...”) but no father is mentioned. Not to name the father of a king would be unprecedented. But if there is no father, there is no father to mention! Christ was born of a virgin. Truly these are “words … taught by the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2: 13).
If we pass on to the NT we see the same accuracy of language: “And Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (Matt. 1: 16). No claim is made for Joseph’s paternity of Christ. He is simply called the husband of Mary––and indeed we are expressly told that he “knew her not until she had brought forth her firstborn son” (v25). That Joseph was not the father is proved by his initial reaction to Mary’s pregnancy: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was thus: His mother, Mary, that is, having been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child of [the] Holy Spirit. But Joseph, her husband, being [a] righteous [man], and unwilling to expose her publicly, purposed to have her put away secretly” (vs 18, 19). He thought she was guilty of fornication and being righteous, sought to have his betrothal to her annulled by a bill of divorce (comp. Matt. 5: 32; 19: 9). These are not the actions of one who saw the child as his own. Again, in Luke’s Gospel the Lord is described as follows: “And Jesus himself was beginning to be about thirty years old; being as was supposed son of Joseph” (Luke 3: 23––my emphasis). Scripture thus takes great care to guard the Lord’s divine paternity.
Yet if Scripture is so scrupulous in it’s choice of words, ought not we, those who profess to be governed by it, to be marked by a similar care in our language? That this is not the case is proved by the frequent use of the expression ‘the God–man’ in relation to Christ. Whatever the intentions of those who use it, this expression implies that the Lord was a hybrid––half God and half man––which is not at all the sense of Scripture. The Lord refers to Himself as “a man who has spoken the truth to you” (John 8: 40), and the apostle testifies that “in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2: 9). He was a true man and He was the true God. Clearly, however, in some minds, while the virgin birth excludes any thought of a human paternity, there is the lingering idea that he derived part of His being from Mary. Gen. 3: 15, already referred to, might seem to suggest this, but being the seed of woman need not mean anything more than that He came out of her loins. Mary was His mother because she carried Him in her womb––not because she contributed anything to His manhood. His body was prepared by God (see Heb. 10: 5). What could He inherit from Mary that was not tainted by sin, or mortal and corruptible? And how could such a One “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1: 21)? Impossible. There must be no blemish on the sacrifice for sin (see Lev. 4: 3).Thus the Spirit of God takes great care to describe Him as “the holy thing” (Luke 1: 35).
The Virgin Birth thus touches every aspect of “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1: 3). The integrity of Scripture rests on it. Christ’s person hinges on it. Our salvation depends on it. We are not called to speculate on the many questions that surround this birth, for what is not revealed is not ours to inquire into––“no one knows the Son but the Father” (Matt. 11: 27). What we do need, however, is a simple faith in these things, and then, like Mary, we shall keep them in our minds and ponder them in our hearts (see Luke 2: 19). That way, we shall receive divine blessing.