I believe … in Jesus Christ who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.…” Thus the Apostles’ Creed affirms a doctrine mentioned by both Matthew and the physician Luke and obviously known to the Apostle Paul. Yet this doctrine of the Virgin Birth has become a stone of stumbling to minds both ancient and modern. Its seeming impossibility has made it the object of numerous attacks, some scholarly, many ignorant. The passages on which the doctrine is based have been alleged to be later insertions into the gospel record and therefore to be deleted or ignored. The Virgin Birth has been dismissed as something borrowed from the pagan myths of the first century. Other persons have simply rejected the thought that a child, even Christ, could be born to a woman apart from a physical relationship with a man. Nevertheless, the doctrine has definite New Testament authority and was incorporated into the creeds of the Church. We are therefore forced to ask some basic questions. Was the Virgin Birth necessary? Is it important for our understanding of Christianity and the person of Christ? What is its significance? If we sacrifice this doctrine, do we lose anything of value?

We observe, first of all, that the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Christ attests the reliability of the Scriptures and the promises of God recorded therein. As Matthew records the announcement to the wondering Joseph that Mary’s child has been conceived by the Holy Ghost, he is careful to point out that prophecy was being fulfilled. “Now all this was done,” he writes, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (1:22, 23). Matthew is referring to the prophecy recorded in Isaiah 7:14. This verse has become the battlefield of controversy, the test of many a version of the Scriptures. When some translator substitutes “young woman” for “virgin,” the cry of heresy is heard. So the translators of the Revised Standard Version have been charged with denying the Virgin Birth of our Lord.

Two Hebrew words can be translated “virgin.” The first, bethulah, can mean only “a virgin pure and unspotted.” The second, almah, can mean “a young woman of marriageable age” or a “virgin.” It is this latter word which Isaiah uses. His word can thus legitimately be translated either “young woman” or “virgin.” Other factors must prove decisive in arriving at the true significance of his prophecy.

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Prophecy Twice Fulfilled

Many of the Old Testament prophecies have more than one fulfillment. Whenever a prophecy has two fulfillments, one is generally immediate and partial, the other future and complete. The context of Isaiah 7 shows that the birth of the child whose name was to be “Immanuel” was to be a God-given sign to King Ahaz indicating the imminence of the conquest of the kingdoms by the king of Assyria. This child would obviously have to be born during the lifetime of Ahaz. And this suggests a possible partial fulfillment of the prophecy. A comparison of Isaiah 7:16 and 8:3, 4 shows that the latter reference records the immediate fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. The prophetess bears a son, by “the will of man,” and this son is the promised sign to King Ahaz. If, therefore, we insist that Isaiah 7:14 be translated with “virgin” and never with “young woman,” we find ourselves with two virgin births recorded in Scripture, while we hold that the birth of Christ was unique! By acknowledging that almah can mean either “young woman” or “virgin,” we avoid this inconsistency. But Matthew, faced with the twin meaning of the word, by the inspiration of the Spirit chose “virgin.”

When Matthew selected his word and referred to this ancient prophecy, he was showing that the Virgin Birth had its roots not only in the Messianic hope of Israel but in the unbreakable promise and plan of God. As this Child is conceived in Mary, a young woman who is a virgin, the sure word of prophecy is attested, the authority of the Bible is still further confirmed, and the certainty of God’s promises is proclaimed.

In the next place, the Virgin Birth declares the presence of the supernatural. Biologically and medically, a virgin birth is a sheer impossibility. Equally impossible, however, are the feeding of the five thousand, the raising of Lazarus, and the resurrection of Christ. The Virgin Birth is the first of a long sequence of quite impossible events and miracles recorded for us in the four Gospels.

These miracles are referred to as “signs.” But of what are they signs? Christ himself pointed out their significance: “But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you” (Luke 11:20). The miracles, including the Virgin Birth, are signs to man that God’s kingdom has come to earth, that God has intervened in the world, that an other-worldly power is present, that the supernatural is real. The miracles proclaim that the world of the known, the understandable, the scientifically measurable, has been invaded from beyond by the sovereign finger of God. This divine, supernatural power is not bound by our known principles and laws. The Virgin Birth and the other miracles do not submit themselves for attestation to research and experiment, to test tubes and slide rules.

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The Presence Of Mystery

The laws of conception and birth, as we know them, state emphatically that there must be a father. In Mary’s case no father is involved; instead, we are shown the sovereign hand of God working through the Holy Spirit in supernatural power. Here is mystery, and it continues throughout the whole ministry of Jesus. As someone has said, “The presence of mystery is the footprint of the divine.”

Our world naturally finds all this difficult and impossible. “There are no miracles,” man cries, “only problems.” “Dismiss it if it cannot be proved!” demands our scientific society. In this space age, we are in danger of becoming so earth-bound that we evade the possibility of miracles, forgetting the power of God and ignoring the reality of the supernatural. The Virgin Birth forcibly proclaims that the supernatural came to this world with Christ. As we are challenged by the other-worldly life of Christ, so are we challenged initially by his other-worldly birth.

Furthermore, the Virgin Birth is a unique attestation of the person of the Saviour. The redemptive work of Christ depends upon his supernatural birth to the Virgin Mary. When we are asked, “Is the Virgin Birth historically necessary for salvation?,” we must reply affirmatively. This miracle tells us not what we have to do to gain our salvation but what Christ had to become in order to gain our redemption. It tells us that God has intervened on our behalf by a Man, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh. The Man dying on Calvary for our sins was no angel sent from heaven but a person born as every other child is born, to a woman. Thus in the providence and power of God the one who died as our substitute on the Cross is one who can pay man’s penalty, for he is Man. The writer to the Hebrews expresses the truth in these words, “Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people” (2:17).

The Virgin Birth guarantees for us that this Man, born to a woman but not by the will of man, is the God-Man. Conceived by the Holy Ghost, this Child of Mary’s womb does not stand in the fallen sequence of Adam, sharing mankind’s guilt and sin. He is Man without man’s sin. That this is so is demonstrated by the life he lived in relation to his Father during his sojourn in the flesh upon earth. His sinless life, born from Mary, is revealed in his perfect obedience to his Father’s will. This obedience had a passive aspect. “I can of myself do nothing,” he stated; “as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me” (John 5:30). The rebellious willfulness of fallen man was absent from this Man among men. He was in his Father’s hands, and he was content.

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There is also a positive aspect of his obedience that again demonstrates his sinless nature. “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work” (John 4:34). This positive acceptance of his Father’s will led him through the temptation of the desert and the agony of the garden to the consummation of the Cross. “I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do.… It is finished!” (John 17:4, 19:30). Here is not only an acceptance of God’s will but a perfect obedience to it that reveals the perfect Man. He is born to a woman, as all other men indeed are, but not in the line of sinful man. He stands as a Man in the world but without the rebellion, the arrogance, the pride of Adam’s fallen race.

Accordingly, in this final act of obedience upon the Cross, the sinless Lamb of God, born of a woman, Mary, can offer himself to God and so perfectly pay the price of man’s sin. He is a “lamb without spot or blemish.” Again Hebrews offers a clear statement: “For such a high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens; who needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the people’s: for this he did once, when he offered up himself” (7:26, 27).

Finally, the Virgin Birth is the sovereign God’s perfect answer to the problem of how to find a suitable sacrifice for man’s sin. The sacrifice must be man, yet must be free from man’s foul taint. Only in the sinless Son of God, born as a Man in this world by the sovereign act of the Spirit in Mary’s womb, could such a sacrifice be found. As B. B. Warfield has well written, “It is only in relation to the New Testament doctrine of redemption that the necessity of the virgin birth of Jesus comes to its complete manifestation.” The redemptive and saving work of the Saviour depends upon his birth of a virgin by the Spirit of God.

T. Leo Brannon is pastor of the First Methodist Church of Samson, Alabama. He received the B.S. degree from Troy State College and the B.D. from Emory University.

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