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Wednesday, 1 June 2011

What does the virgin birth tell us about Jesus?

According to the Bible, Jesus was born to a virgin mother, Mary, and had no human father. That is, unlike every other human being since Adam and Eve, Jesus was not the genetic offspring of two human parents. Rather, Mary miraculously became pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. I would encourage you to pause and read Luke 1:26-38 for context.

Christians through the ages have puzzled over the meaning of the virgin birth. Why did God decide that Jesus should be born in this way? Some say that it allowed Jesus to avoid the stain of original sin, or gave him super powers to overcome sin. These are interesting but speculative theories.
Others have identified a link between the virgin birth and the title “Son of God” often used of Jesus in the New Testament. This link is largely based on Luke 1:35, where the angel told Mary that because of the virgin birth, her child would be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35). But what does this mean exactly? Did the virgin birth make Jesus the Son of God?

When we look at the whole New Testament, one of the first things we notice is that only two of the four Gospel accounts even mention the virgin birth. This is not too surprising because biographies of that time rarely devoted much space to birth and childhood, since they had to fit the whole life story into a single scroll. The lengthy genealogies and birth accounts in Matthew and Luke are exceptional, suggesting the authors saw great significance in Jesus’ lineage and the circumstances of his birth.

Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus as an adult. This is more typical of biographies of the time, but it also suggests that Mark did not see the virgin birth as fundamental to Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. His identification of Jesus as the Son of God was at the centre of his Gospel message (Mark 1:1, 11) but he was able to get this point across without mentioning the virgin birth. This suggests he saw the title “Son of God” as capturing something other than the means of Jesus’ conception.

John’s Gospel also emphatically identifies Jesus as the Son of God (John 1:14, 3:16, 20:31). He used up a lot of precious scroll space at the beginning of his Gospel describing Christ’s divine origin as the Word, but did not mention the virgin birth. This again suggests that the title “Son of God” means something more than merely how Jesus came to be conceived in Mary’s womb.

Moving beyond the Gospels, we find that there is not even a single direct mention of the virgin birth in any of book of the New Testament outside the Gospels. Consider passages like Romans 1:4, Galatians 2:20; Hebrews 1:1-2, and 1 John 5:5. All of these writers emphatically declare Jesus to be the Son of God, and not one of them felt the need to mention that he was born of a virgin! This is very strange if the virgin birth is of great theological importance; if it is what made Jesus the Son of God.

In my opinion, the key to understanding the significance of the virgin birth is found in an obscure prophecy given to King Ahaz in Isaiah 7:14:
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus’ birth was the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us).” (Matt. 1:22-23)

The key word to note in the prophecy in Isaiah is sign. The virgin birth was a sign. What does a sign do? It points us in a direction. It does not create anything new, it only draws our attention to an existing reality. If you are driving along and see a sign, “Bumpy road ahead” then you know the road will be bumpy. But the sign does not cause the road to be bumpy. The bumps would still be there even if the sign wasn’t; you just wouldn’t know about them. In the same way, the virgin birth did not cause Jesus to be the Son of God. It was a sign, indicating to us that Jesus was the Son of God. That is why Luke says that the virgin birth caused people to call Jesus the Son of God, just as walking on the water did (Matthew 14:23-33) or being raised from the dead did (Romans 1:4). These signs pointed out what was already true.

In conclusion, then, rather than being the climactic revelation about Jesus’ identity, the virgin birth points us toward a far greater revelation: that, in Matthew’s words, the child to be born would be God with us; or that, in Isaiah’s words, the child to be born would be the Mighty God (Isaiah 9:6).

This explains how Mark, John, Paul and other New Testament writers could have been aware of the virgin birth and yet felt no need to mention it, even as they proclaimed Jesus to be the Son of God. For Paul, the majesty of the Son of God made it necessary to emphasize that he was born of a woman (Galatians 4:4). Jesus’ divinity was obvious enough; it was his humanity that really needed to be emphasized!

The virgin birth was the means God chose to dispatch his Son into the world, perhaps because it helps us to visualize how he could be both divine and human. Had Jesus been born to two human parents, it would have been difficult to see him as a preexistent divine being, the Son of God, God with us. Had Jesus simply appeared like an angel, or been formed from clay like Adam, it would have been difficult to see him as a real human being, the Son of Man, the seed of the woman. In the virgin birth, we see Jesus’ infinite, eternal, divine nature preserved and his finite, temporal human nature created.

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