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FIRST-PERSON: God’s Son, born of a virgin

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–In every generation, the virgin birth of Jesus comes under attack, both from those within and those without the church. At the dawn of the 19th century (1799), Friedrich Schleiermacher, trying to make Christianity palatable to its “cultured despisers,” asserted that one need not believe either the virgin birth or the resurrection to still have “faith.” A century later, in 1892, German Lutheran pastor Christopher Schrempf refused to use the Apostle’s Creed in baptism because of his disbelief in the virgin birth. A group of his followers consulted with Adolf Harnack, who affirmed Schrempf’s discrediting of the Apostles Creed by attacking its historicity.

Fast forward another hundred years. The 20th century closed with John Shelby Spong, an Episcopal bishop, dismissing the virgin birth of Jesus in his small book, Born of a Woman. Interspersed between these have been the “quests” for the historical Jesus, Bultmann’s radical “demythologizing” of the Gospels, process theology, open theism, and the Jesus Project. Each, in its own way, has sought to minimize the significance and importance of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.

In response, I submit five reasons why the virgin birth is a doctrine we can count on — five reasons it makes sense to believe the Word of God on this matter. These insights are not unique to me, for these are the truths woven throughout any consistent Bible-based evangelical theology.

— The virgin birth considered … practically.

Knowing about and believing in the virgin birth is not essential for a person to have a true conversion experience. Many people, hearing the powerful message of the cross, have repented and believed unto salvation without ever having read the Gospel accounts of the supernatural conception of Jesus. However, once a believer learns of the virgin birth, it all makes sense. If our saving God is able to impute our sins to Jesus on the cross, raise Jesus from the dead and impute His righteousness to all who believe, it is a small thing for Him to overshadow a peasant girl in Palestine and perform a miracle of conception. Not to believe in this miracle may indicate a basic worldview at odds with the miraculous in general. If we disbelieve a supernatural birth, will disbelief in a supernatural atonement, a supernatural resurrection and a supernatural conversion be far behind? The history of Christian thought demonstrates this is indeed a slippery slope.

— The virgin birth considered … psychologically.

The reaction of both Mary and Joseph was one of stunned astonishment. Theirs was not the reaction of exposed guiltiness. They both knew they had maintained a lifestyle of moral and sexual purity. Their relationship was one of honor and integrity toward each other and toward others. Both Matthew and Luke indicate the absolute incredulity Mary and Joseph expressed upon learning of Mary’s pregnancy. Their responses to this news point to the factual nature of the narrative and of the teaching.

— The virgin birth considered … logically.

When the angel told Mary “for nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37), the angel reflected a biblical worldview that is contrary to the naturalism of the modern era.

One of the amazing oddities of the last 200 years of Christian thought is the widespread prevalence of writers who claim to affirm some kind of “faith” even while denying God’s supernatural ability to do the unexplained and the unexpected. A simple exercise in logic may be stated this way: Either God is able to do the otherwise unobserved and unexperienced (a biblical worldview) or God has limited Himself to do only that which humans have uniformly observed throughout history (a naturalistic worldview). If we accept the corollary truths that God exists and that God can do whatever He chooses to do, it is no more difficult to believe the first premise stated above than to believe the second. Can God perform a miracle of virgin birth? If He is God, He can. Did God perform a miracle of virgin birth? Let’s hear the Scripture speak.

— The virgin birth considered … biblically.

While two biblical passages explicitly teach the doctrine of the virgin birth (Matthew 1:16-25 and Luke 1:26-38), numerous other passages of Scripture attest to its significance and veracity.

In Isaiah 7:14, the prophet predicted a supernatural sign to the unbelieving Ahaz, a descendant of David who was king of Judah. He was a wicked king, one who did not walk after the ways of David. When Judah was besieged by two powerful enemies, Rezin of Syria and Pekah of Israel, Ahaz was about to seek an alliance with Assyria to come to his defense. The prophet Isaiah confronted him, calling on him to put his trust in the LORD for deliverance. Ahaz refused to acknowledge the LORD. In fact, he shut the doors of the temple, made himself altars on every street corner in Jerusalem and systematically demonstrated his utter rejection of the LORD.

Isaiah pronounced a sign to Ahaz. The LORD would remain faithful to His covenant with David in spite of Ahaz’s rebellious response to Him. In the prophetic vision, Isaiah saw three future realities. One, an “‘almah” (a Hebrew word translated “virgin”) would bear a son who would be God “with us.” This child would be the fulfillment of the LORD’s messianic promise to David. Therefore, Ahaz’s thinking was wrong-headed to imagine that his enemies could prevail against the anointed people of God through whom the promised Messiah must come. Two, Isaiah, seeing that future birth as if it were a present reality, predicted that before such a son would reach the age of knowing right from wrong (a period of about three years), the two kings in question would have unsuccessfully concluded their invasion and returned to their homes. Three, the prophet saw that the very ones Ahaz sought to lean upon — the Assyrians — would become an agent of harassment against the people of God for generations to come.

Commentators differ on the son to be born, whether it’s referring to Isaiah’s son, a son of the line of David, or a future messianic son. They also differ on whether the term ‘almah was a prediction of a virgin giving birth in the distant future or a young woman living at the present time who would conceive a son that would serve as a visible reminder to Ahaz of the LORD’s promise. Regardless, it is interesting that the word ‘almah was the term used in this inspired text. While the related word “bethula” was a “more precise term relative to virginity” than ‘almah, it was the latter term used in Isaiah’s prophecy.

‘Almah only occurs seven times in the Old Testament. Alan Macrae in the “Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament” observed that, though the term ‘almah is “not a technical word for ‘virgin,'” in its contexts (Genesis 24:3; Exodus 2:8; Psalm 68:25,26; Song of Solomon 1:3 and 6:8; Proverbs 30:19; and here) it “represents a young woman, one of whose characteristics is virginity.” It is clear that the use of ‘almah in Isaiah 7:14 was a divinely-appointed word. It allowed for the fulfillment of the sign in Ahaz’s own lifetime of a young woman who had not yet been married to give birth to a son, while also allowing for a future messianic fulfillment when a virgin would conceive and bear a son.

Matthew’s Gospel introduces three lines of evidence in the first chapter to point to the virgin birth of Jesus. First, as Matthew concluded his genealogical summary of Jesus, he made a grammatical distinction that is significant. In the first three references to women in the genealogy, the Scripture states that the man bore his son literally “out from” his wife — Salmon begat Boaz of Rachab; Boaz begat Obed of Ruth; David begat Solomon of the one who had been Uriah’s. However, when Matthew mentioned the birth of Jesus, naming the fourth woman mentioned in the genealogy, he used a different grammatical expression. The King James text reads this way: “Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom” (the Greek “hes,” which is feminine) “was born Jesus who is called Christ.” Jesus is not listed as Joseph’s son, but Mary’s.

Second, Joseph’s surprise at Mary’s pregnancy cannot be overlooked. Upon hearing that Mary was pregnant, Joseph’s first reaction was a sense of betrayal. He knew the child was not his. His surprise points to the nature of their courtship — one of purity.

Third, when Matthew translated the prophetic reference of Isaiah 7:14 (Matthew 1:23), he used “parthenos” (“virgin”), a very specific word to translate the more general word ‘almah. Matthew was not alone in this rendering of the term. The translators of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures translated in stages during the centuries leading up to the birth of Jesus, also chose to use parthenos to translate ‘almah in this passage. The messianic expectation among all the Jews of this era — Hellenistic and Chasidic — was very strong. In light of the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire, they looked for deliverance from God’s anointed. This translation of Isaiah’s prophecy underscores how deeply the Jews of this inter-biblical era longed for the coming of the Messiah.

Luke provided several more pieces of evidence to the fact of the virgin birth. He, too, used the specific term parthenos when identifying Mary (Luke 1:27). Whereas one might acknowledge Joseph’s surprise since he knew he was not the father of the child, Luke emphasized Mary’s surprise as well. Her perplexity was real and emotionally charged. Upon hearing that she would bear a son, she puzzled, “How can this be since I have not been intimate with a man?” (Luke 1:34). The angel informed her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of the Most High would overshadow her. While Mary was still trying to piece this all together, the angel used a different type of birth miracle to assure Mary. Every Jewish adult knew the history of the nation, of Sarah’s miraculous delivery of Isaac after she had passed child-bearing age. The angel told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth, also past child-bearing age, was also pregnant. These angelic words had to have resonated with her: “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

We cannot but wonder at the unfolding awareness that led to Mary’s willing acceptance of this news. Nor can we know what emotions raced through her soul as she imagined the attendant shame she may have borne as news of her pregnancy spread to those closest to her. But we hear her utter a tremendous expression of faith in verse 38, “I am the Lord’s slave. May it be done to me according to your word.”

F.F. Bruce in a short essay called “The Person of Christ: Incarnation and Virgin Birth,” observed, “Whether other New Testament writers knew anything about the virgin birth or not, they say nothing to contradict it. Indeed, in one or two places some of them seem to betray some acquaintance with it.” While the remainder of the New Testament is quiet concerning the birth of Jesus, there are a few hints that show the apostles built their faith upon this common tradition of faith.

Paul built his high Christology on a keen awareness that Jesus was uniquely the God-Man. His classic statement is recorded in Galatians 4:4-5, “But when the completion of time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” In Romans 8:3-4, he expressed this thought: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Bruce noted “‘likeness’ does not suggest that His manhood was less than real, but that His human nature was like our sinful nature except that His nature was unstained by sin.” This fully accords with Paul’s assertion in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that Jesus, “as the One who did not know sin, became sin for us.” It also echoes the great early Christian hymn in Philippians 2:5-11.

While the details of the birth of Jesus did not fit in John’s purpose for his Gospel, the pre-incarnate existence of Jesus played a prominent role in his prologue. The foundational truth that underscores John’s message is that the eternal Word (John 1:1) became flesh (John 1:14). He reiterates this fundamental truth in his short first epistle — whoever denies that Jesus the Christ has come in the flesh reflects the spirit of antichrist (1 John 4:2-3).

— The virgin birth considered … theologically.

God had decreed, in a moral relationship, that every descendant of Adam was under the curse of the Fall. Had Jesus not been born in a manner that broke the lineal descent from Adam, He would not have been free from the curse. But the lineal descent has been broken. The Second Adam has come. His conception by the Holy Spirit marked Him off as deity — God with us. His birth by a woman identified Him as a near kinsman in the flesh.

Old Testament teaching stressed the role of the Kinsman-Redeemer — the near kinsman, or “go’el” — who was charged to redeem the inheritance of one whose property had been forfeited through poverty. The near kinsman must be a blood relative, must have sufficient money to purchase the forfeited inheritance and must be willing to buy back the forfeited inheritance (Leviticus 25 and 27; the book of Ruth). Coupled with the law of levirate marriage, as in the book of Ruth, the redeemer may also be required to marry the wife of the deceased kinsman (Deuteronomy 25:5ff; Genesis 38).

The righteous demands of redemption, which presuppose a supernatural birth, are fully realized in Jesus, our go’el, our Kinsman-Redeemer. Jesus became a blood relative of fallen humanity through the virgin birth. Jesus alone had sufficient merit as the sinless Son of God to pay the ransom for sinners. Jesus, of His own volition, laid down His life to purchase the redemption of a fallen race. Jesus has entered into a new relationship with those of us who believe, in which He serves as the bridegroom and we are the bride of Christ.

Can a person be saved without knowing of the virgin birth? Absolutely. But once one has been saved, the heart will be strangely warmed when hearing the marvelous truth recounted from the pages of Holy Scripture: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows …” (Matthew 1:18).

Coupled with this marvelous truth, “But when the completion of the time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons,” every redeemed heart will declare “Amen,” will rejoice at God’s gracious gift of salvation and will bow humbly in adoration and worship.
Roger S. Oldham is vice president for convention relations for the Southern Baptist Executive Committee.

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  • Roger S. Oldham