Enjoyed episode two of the BBC’s Nativity last night. The kids put me onto it after seeing the first instalment. It reminded me that this is, of course, the time of year when we remember the virgin conception of Jesus. Before we remember his birth we remember that Mary, an unmarried single mother, gave birth to a human-divine ‘hybrid’ baby boy without actually having sexual intercourse. When you stop and think about it, it’s ridiculous; in the sense that it’s outlandish, preposterous and bizarre.
But when Dr Paul Barnett writes, ‘The doctrine of the virgin birth asserts that Jesus of Nazareth was not born by the usual biological processes. There was no human male who figured in the conception. Instead, Jesus was born through his natural mother, Mary, as a result of direct, divine intervention’, he’s summarising the biblical teaching.
The Bible asserts that Jesus was conceived in the womb of his mother Mary by a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit. That happened without the contribution of a human father.
In Matthew 1:28 we read
‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit’.
Shortly after that an angel of the Lord said to Joseph, who was engaged to Mary,
‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20).
Then we read that Joseph
‘did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus’ (Matthew 1:24–25).
The same fact is affirmed in Luke’s gospel, where we read about the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary. After the angel had told her that she would bear a son, Mary said,
‘How shall this be, since I have no husband?’ The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35).
Denying the Virgin Birth has become a sport. As you’d expect, Richard Dawkins has had a pop at it. Even a previous Archbishop of Durham had a go. It’s been a cause of ridicule for those outside the church and a cause of embarrassment for those within it. But if what we believe is to be governed by the statements of Scripture, then we can’t deny this truth. And when we think about it, for the God who created the universe out of nothing, a virginal conception is a walk in the park. But rather than argue for the fact of the Virgin birth, which is an exercise in the historicity and reliability of the New Testament documents, I want us to consider briefly its significance.
If we’re in any doubt about the significance of this doctrine it’s worth reflecting on Barnett’s response to the question, if we don’t have a virgin birth, what are we left with? He responded with,
’You’re left with a Jewish Messiah and Christianity become little more than a Jewish nationalistic cause. If Jesus does not have a divine nature, He is qualitatively no different from many of the other self-proclaimed nationalist Messiahs who died while trying to deliver Israel from her oppressors. I think that the very things that are distinctive about Christianity like the Trinity, the divine-human nature of Christ, Christ’s sacrifice for sinners, justification by faith and the resurrection – all these doctrines are part of a whole. They are dependent in some way on Jesus having a divine nature’.
And so, let me suggest that the significance the virgin birth is seen in these three areas.
1. The virgin birth shows that salvation must come from the Lord
The virgin birth of Christ is an unmistakable reminder that salvation can never come through human effort. Salvation must involves the work of God alone. This is no co-operative project. God must take on human flesh to do what we’re incapable of doing ourselves; namely living a life of perfect righteousness and suffering as a substituteunder the just wrath of God upon sin. We took no part in the birth of our Saviour. We weren’t there. We weren’t involved. It’s the ultimate rescue mission. We’re just helpless bystanders looking on from the persepctive of historical distance. Mary had no part and Joseph had no involvement in the conception of this miraculous baby boy. Our salvation only comes about through the supernatural work of God.
2. The virgin birth unites deity and humanity in one person
Jesus Christ is fully human because he was born of a normal female Mother. But he is also fully divine because he was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And so he unites humanity and deity in one person. He must be human to live a life of representative righteousness and be an appropriate substitute for us. He must be divine to reveal the Father to us and to take his Father’s wrath upon himself. Barnett writes, ‘I think that what the doctrine of the virgin birth establishes is that if you didn’t have it, you would still have Jesus as a Messiah – but he would be a ‘this worldly’ Messiah. He wouldn’t be the Son of God in the filial sense. Without the virgin birth, Jesus can be special and anointed. But he can’t be unique’.
3. The virgin birth preserves Christ’s true humanity from inherited sin
Every human being inherits legal guilt and a corrupt moral nature from our first father, Adam. This is sometimes called ‘inherited sin’ or ‘original sin’. But Jesus did not have a human father. This means that the line of descent from Adam is partially interrupted. Jesus did not descend from Adam in exactly the same way in which every other human being has descended from Adam. This helps us to understand why the legal guilt and moral corruption that belongs to all other human beings did not belong to Christ. This idea seems to be indicated in the angel Gabriel’s statement to Mary,
‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35).
Luke 1:35 connects conception by the Holy Spirit with the holiness or moral purity of Christ. Because the Spirit brought about the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary, the child was to be called ‘holy’. We mustn’t therefore assume that the transmission of sin comes only through the father. We won’t find that taught in the Bible. But in the case of Jesus the unbroken line of descent from Adam was interrupted, and Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Barnett writes, ‘when Jesus dies as the Suffering Servant of the Lord, He actually dies in the place of sinners as the perfect sacrifice. He couldn’t do that if He simply came from the line of David. David’s natural descendants were all flawed’.
What ought we to with this idea of the virgin birth [or conception] of Jesus?
Understand it, ponder it, belief it, rejoice in it and defend it!