Jesus Christ’s entry into humanity—a most unusual entry for the eternal Son of God—separates Him from the rest of us. It is worth studying, but not simply to increase our knowledge of God and Scripture. The realities of Christ’s virgin birth and incarnation (His taking on of flesh) must enhance our love for God and our gratitude for His salvific work on our behalf.
Because these doctrines are so critical to the Christian faith, I want us to first examine two unbiblical views.
How Does the World View the Birth of Jesus?
1) “Jesus came through usual means—God and Mary had sexual relations.” This irreverent take on the virgin birth by author and scientist Isaac Asimov manages to offend everybody. In Asimov’s tale, God is wondering where to go on vacation when an angel advises him to consider planet Earth. God says, “No. I went there two thousand years ago, had an affair with a little Jewish girl, and everybody has been talking about my son ever since.” That version is upsetting. But it gets our attention. It shows how some non-Christians view the hallowed story.
Muslims believe something similar. In fact, many think the Christian version of the Trinity is made up of God the Father, Mary, and their offspring, Jesus. To them, this is obscene. They assume the doctrine of the Trinity implies that God had to sleep with a human to bear a son. In this, they are wrong. They accuse Christians of worshiping a human as God. In this, they are right.
2) “Jesus came through the usual means—he had human parents.” Those who subscribe to this view say Jesus was a product of typical male-female relations. Indeed, some who lived close to Jesus’ time considered Him to be the illegitimate son of a rapacious Roman soldier.
These profane views shouldn’t surprise us. What else can human beings make of such an incredible mystery? Even Joseph, the rightful and righteous bridegroom of Mary had secular questions. He wasn’t naïve. He knew how babies were made. Mary herself was greatly troubled by the angelic greetings (Lk. 1:29) and asked the honest question: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk. 1:34).
Babies are only made one way, unless you worship a God with whom “nothing is impossible” (Lk. 1:37) and a God who is interested and involved in human history. Joseph and Mary yielded to this kind of God—not to a profane, game theorist of a God, nor a disinterested watchmaker of a God, but to a holy Creator and a loving Savior who would take the risk of embarrassment and misunderstanding to save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21).
How Does the Bible View the Birth of Jesus?
Let us now check the biblical data on how this One baby was made. We get some pertinent information on the virgin birth from Matthew 1:18-25. Matthew tells us that the marriage between Joseph and Mary was pledged though not consummated before the birth of Jesus. Mary was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit before they came together. Joseph deliberated on this difficult and most amazing event, but an angel confirmed that the baby had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. The virgin birth was prophesied in the Old Testament 700 years before Jesus. Joseph abstained from sexual union with Mary until the baby was born. According to Matthew, Jesus was born of a virgin.
Luke calls her a virgin when she conceived (Lk. 1:27,31). Mary too called herself a virgin (v. 34). Since the legal father of Jesus protected Mary’s virginity and the mother of Jesus queried about how these things could be, you may safely conclude that the Bible claims that Jesus was born of a virgin.
There is more biblical material to be examined. The genealogical record declares with precision, “Jacob fathered Joseph the husband of Mary, by whom (feminine gender) Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah” (Matt. 1:16). The feminine relative pronoun erases any ambiguity concerning Jesus’ parentage. The only human Jesus resembled was Mary. Matthew uses the distinct word for virgin (Greek, parthénos) as that which the prophet foretold (Matt 1:23; cf. Isa. 7:14). Many scholars also make the point that Paul’s statement about the son born of a woman (Gal. 4:4) alludes to the virgin birth.
A person may deny or reinterpret the biblical account of the virgin birth, but there is truly no question about what the Bible proposes. In the Bible, the virgin birth is as clear as a dinner bell. Scripture wants us to understand this: Jesus was born of a virgin.
Is the Conception of Jesus Inconceivable?
When Christians refer to the virgin birth, they only refer to Jesus’ conception and birth. There are four ways in which humans have come into the world: 1) without human instrumentality (Adam); (2) without female instrumentality (Eve); (3) by male and female instrumentality (you and me); and (4) without male instrumentality (Jesus). For the God of the Bible, the virgin birth is no more doable or undoable than the other ways.
A similar phenomenon is the asexual reproduction that exists in the realm of nature, named parthenogenesis, the science of virgin beginnings. There is a similarity here, though not an identical parallel to the virgin birth. A honeybee colony (about 50,000 bees buzzing about) features only one queen who lays all the eggs. The eggs that are fertilized are the females, the workers. The unfertilized are the males, the drones. Now if God in nature can produce bees from only one gender, why can He not also produce His Son from the seed of the woman only? We don’t want to lessen the miraculous nature of the virgin birth of Christ, but it is not entirely inconceivable. While God does not do what is intrinsically impossible, He can do anything that is humanly impossible. “Nothing that is possible is impossible with God” (Lk. 1:37). The illustration from nature shows that the virgin birth is not intrinsically impossible, that is, a non-thing.
Furthermore, while Jesus’ conception was unusual, his birth was rather normal. The days of the pregnancy had to be completed (Lk. 2:6); Jesus Christ was born with normal, human flesh; He added a real, human nature (cf. Phil. 2:7,8). Contrast this virgin birth with Gautama Buddha’s supposed entry into the world. In Buddhist accounts, Gautama was not born like other children. While not a virgin birth, celestial influence rendered the human father irrelevant: “When the child was born, he had none of the offensive matter which smears other children.” The future Buddha left his mother’s womb erect, “like a preacher descending from the pulpit” (Geoffrey Parrinder, Avatar and Incarnation, London: Faber & Faber, 1970, p. 13).
How could God become completely and genuinely human?
Two aspects form the critical question of God’s entry into humanity.*
How could God become completely and genuinely human, and how could a man be completely and genuinely God? Both are answered by the virgin birth. The following thoughts demonstrate how the virgin birth protects against heresies about the incarnation. (If you aren’t familiar with the technical terms used, look them up in a Bible dictionary as a Christmas devotional project.)
God became completely and genuinely human…
- without sexually cohabiting with a human female. The virgin birth contradicts the Muslim perception. You can rule out absurdities about sexual intercourse because God the Holy Spirit, who “overshadowed” Mary to conceive Jesus, has no body. It takes two bodies to cohabit. While Muslims say the incarnation desecrates God, it is their view of the Christian Trinity that dishonors God. Why? Because God the Holy Spirit has no body to copulate with human bodies. The Muslim view only makes sense if one assumes that biological reproduction is the only way to bring forth human life. But their own holy book says Adam was not brought forth biologically.
- without simply appearing human. Jesus became reallyman; He actually took on flesh. The fact that Jesus was born to a virgin, not only through a virgin, rebuts Docetism—that He just “seemed” to be a human being.
- without the Son becoming two persons.Jesus is one person, not twin persons with one will. The virgin birth cautions us against that Nestorian position.
- without being divine only. Some held Jesus to be only divine, or divine in His spirit only. They allowed Him to possess a human body (and possibly a human psyche) but not a full human nature. The virgin birth counters Apollinarianism, which denied that God the Son took on full humanity.
- without using His divinity to escape death. Jesus could only undergo death because He was human in every respect. Jesus says He could have called on the angels for protection, yet He didn’t use that escapist route. As really human, in submission to the Father’s purpose, He set out to feel the full force of humanity in His death. Jesus died. He couldn’t have died without becoming fully man. Jesus’ death—essential for the accomplishment of our salvation—was made possible by the virgin birth.
- without forfeiting His pre-existence. For theological and emotional reasons, some scholars attempt to divide the second person of the Trinity from the Palestinian-born Jesus. The virgin birth preserves the connection and the continuity of the Person. The Bible says, “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:2). The pre-existent Jesus came in the flesh through the virgin birth.
How can God be really man? The virgin birth.
How could a man be completely and genuinely God?
Next we consider the divinity of the Son and counter potential fallacies.
Jesus Christ, fully man, was also completely and genuinely God…
- without being adopted by God later in life. Adoptionism said Christ was born of a virgin by special decree of God, was tested as to His ability, and was given supernatural powers at His baptism. But a man can’t become God later in his life. The virgin birth maintains that Jesus was always divine.
- without being human only. According to the heresy of Ebionitism, Jesus was just the final and greatest of all the prophets, the natural son of Joseph and Mary, but not the eternal Son of God. The virgin birth provides for the fullness of God to dwell in Jesus in bodily form(Col. 2:9).
- without being sinful. How can a descendant of Adam be sinless? The God-Man must be both God and man, without the sinfulness of manhood tainting His divinity. The virgin birth supports Jesus’ humanity and also His sinlessness, since He was not born similarly to other descendants of Adam.
- without God creating another Adam. If God had simply created another sinless man from the dust and named him Jesus, He wouldn’t have been a descendant of Adam who could have credibly saved Adam’s descendants. He also wouldn’t have been God. Only God can save humanity. It is impossible for a descendant of Adam to be the sinless Savior of human beings without the virgin birth.
How can God become really man, and not merely man? How can Jesus be divine and human? The virgin birth addresses these concerns. The virgin birth makes possible the exclusive incarnation of God (John 1:1, 14,17)—the complete representation of humankind (Heb. 2:17; 4:15) that results in the possibility of our own salvation and that of all humanity.
*For space reasons, I do not deal in this article with the amazing necessity of the virgin birth that some scholars see in preserving Christ’s sovereign right to the throne of David forecast in the Old Testament (2 Samuel 7:12-16) as David’s son while escaping the curse on King Jeconiah’s descendants (Jer. 22:28-30). Joseph was legal heir to the Davidic throne (cf. Mt. 1:11) and had to be Jesus’ legal father. Jesus could not have prospered on David’s throne if He had been Joseph’s physical progeny. Here is another reason for the virgin birth!