by Richard Melick
The virgin conception and birth of Jesus introduce the central truth of Christianity. Jesus was God incarnate. The biblical writers care little about Jesus’ boyhood, family, shaping influences or personality. They care greatly about His origin.
Skeptics sometimes suggest Christianity would fare better without the virgin birth. Yet those who witnessed Jesus’ life and resurrection knew its central place. Like them, we accept Mary’s testimony confirmed by other witnesses and the Holy Spirit.
Three Gospels describe the Virgin Birth. John approaches it theologically: “The logos (word) became flesh” (John 1:14). He states the point succinctly and directly. In Jesus, God became human!
Matthew is Joseph centered, presenting “the Jewish Jesus,” realizing Joseph was Jesus’ legal father. The unusual events surprised Joseph. Skeptical, he was caught between his love for Mary and the Law’s justice. Matthew calls the reader to journey with Joseph as he progressively understands the incarnation. Several aspects present a biblical case for accepting the historical nature of the Virgin Birth.
1. Joseph and Mary. Matthew describes the conception as “before they came together.” They were serious about each other, but sexually pure. Joseph’s dilemma of how to treat Mary reinforces his own surprise at the coming pregnancy.
2. The angel’s message. Angels seldom appear in Scripture. When they do, they mark transitional stages in God’s developing plan of redemption. They are always God’s intermediaries. Knowing Hebrew history, Joseph certainly connected the angel with a special communication from God.
The angelic message contains two essential elements. First, the origin of Mary’s conception. This first occurrence of “The Holy Spirit” in the New Testament used Christian terms to connect Joseph to the Old Testament texts about God’s Spirit. Joseph understood.
Second, the mission of Mary’s son, dying for the world’s sins, required divine activity. No mere human could accomplish this.
3. The confirmation from prophecy. The angel quoted Is. 7:14, thus revealing the divine interpretation of the ancient text. Quoted from the Greek translation, the Septuagint (LXX), the word for virgin is parthenos. Less common than gune, “woman,” parthenos normally means an unmarried woman of marriageable age (see 1 Cor. 7 for a good example). The Hebrew text makes the same distinction using alma (“young woman or virgin”) rather than the more common bethula.
Furthermore, the angel says it is “THE virgin” who will conceive. Many translations omit the article “the,” preferring “a virgin.” The angel’s interpretation, however, indicates the prediction had a special virgin in mind. From the time Isaiah uttered the prophecy, it is likely that devout Jewish girls asked “am I THAT virgin?” They were not, but Mary was!
Finally, the angel affirmed Jesus’ incarnation. Names were significant, but none more so than Jesus (“Jehovah saves”). God’s purpose for Mary’s son evidenced the truth that “God is with us” (Emmanuel). God is Incarnate!
Luke centers on Mary, Jesus’ physical parent. There are differences, but Luke makes basically the same points: the Virgin Mary, the angel Gabriel, the baby will be From the Holy Spirit and her baby is God incarnate, the Savior. Two unique emphases, however, deserve attention.
First, Mary asked “how.” She voiced what everyone wants to know. How can this happen? Most people assume sexual activity. Some radical critics have likened it to Greek mythology describing gods cohabitating with women. These conclusions are wrong at two basic points.
It incorrectly assumes God is sexual and has sex with His creation. Human sex wonderfully approximates the intimacy between Father, Son and Spirit, as well as the relationship between Jesus and the church. Jesus, however, limited marriage, and especially the procreative aspects of marriage, to Earth’s economy and not Heaven’s (Matt. 22). It is unlikely that God “has sex.”
This also fails to understand what the angel actually said: “the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Overshadow is hardly synonymous with procreation. God created something new in Mary’s body—He created “God in flesh”—the Incarnation!
Second, later in Luke, the angels celebrate the birth of Jesus. They exclaim “in the highest, Glory to God, and on Earth, peace to men of good will.” With our limited perspective, we think only of what God did for us in the Incarnation. But this text opens another perspective.
There are two scenes: Earth and Heaven (“the highest”). Luke’s point is not that “God is in the highest,” therefore we should ascribe glory to God who resides there. The text provides two aspects of the Incarnation. First, it should bring peace on Earth. Second, it brings glory to God. In the highest, they congratulate God because the incarnation inaugurated the redemption He so longed to see. Now God triumphs over evil. God relates to His erring creation. The universe can be restored to harmony. Our sins can be forgiven.
Thus, while the incarnation changes us far beyond what any can imagine, it brings greater joy to God, Who authored the plan of redemption.
Richard Melick is director of the academic graduate studies program and professor of New Testament studies at Golden Gate Seminary.