What Does the Bible Say About the Virgin Birth?
The Great Contradiction
The audacity of the Incarnation begins at conception (as does the wonder of all human life): Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. This is the first claim of the gospel story, and it contradicts our understanding of life. If a woman is pregnant, she is not a virgin. That is the way God designed human existence.
An unwed woman who turns up pregnant and claims she was impregnated by God is usually committed to a mental institution. (Would you believe such an explanation from your fiance?) This claim defies everything we know to be true and verifiable in our human experience. Virgins do not have children.
Hence, the virgin birth is against all the norms of human understanding. Not only so, the Incarnation is a human impossibility. But miracles do not make sense. Even theologically, we are left with unanswered questions as to the whys and hows of the Incarnation. At the end of the day it can only be comprehended as grace. This is why the whole idea of counting chromosomes and attempting to figure out the biology of the Incarnation is nonsensical and trivial. We may as well waste our time determining formulas and processes to turn water into wine.
From the moment of conception we must accept Jesus Christ on His terms, not ours. The Incarnation was God’s coming, not humanity’s making. God elected to come. The virgin birth paves the way for everything else Jesus did and taught. If we are to follow Him, it will be on His terms. His teachings go against our impulses of self-preservation. His formula for life begins with death. He turns everything upside down. Mary was the first human being to accept Jesus Christ, and she had to do so on His terms. Everyone since who Has accepted Him has done so on His terms.
The Great Confirmation
The virgin birth is evidence of the deity of Jesus Christ. There is no doubting His own claims to deity, the prophetic claims applied to him, the claims of the apostles, the other New Testament validations of His deity, and the claims of the early church. Jesus Christ was not merely a man through whom God was revealed to this world; Jesus Christ is God Himself.
This evidence of His deity corroborates with the gospel narratives that Jesus was born of a virgin, conceived as an act of the Holy Spirit. It is an existential impossibility for Jesus to be truly God without Him being born of a virgin. If He had an earthly father, in what way could it be said that He is God? If He were conceived by the Spirit in the womb of a married woman, there would be no proof as to the legitimacy of the conception. This leads to one logical conclusion: for Jesus Christ to be fully human and fully divine, He had to have been born of a virgin.
The Great Condescension
But there is more to Incarnation than the mystical union of God and flesh. God becoming flesh was the means by which God came. His coming was a self-emptying condescension to our level for the sake of identifying with us and saving us. But with whom did He identify? The well-off and whole? No, He was born of a virgin. This not only implies the divine nature of His conception and His identity as both God and human, it demonstrates exactly how low He condescended and with what groups of people He chose to associate. To say He was born of a virgin is also to say He was conceived of an unwed woman.
Jesus identified with the lowliest of society. Those who are scorned today may be closer to understanding Jesus than are the pious. We have a theological heyday with the virgin birth for it proves Jesus’ identity as both God and man. No doubt Jesus’ peers had a heyday with the virgin birth for it supposedly proved His illegitimacy. (See John 8:39-41.) He was born with the appearance of sin, and the evidence suggested that He was the product of fornication. There were “nine months of awkward explanations, the lingering scent of scandal—it seems that God arranged the most humiliating circumstances possible for his entrance, as if to avoid any charge of favoritism. I am impressed that when the Son of God became a human being he played by the rules, harsh rules: small towns do not treat kindly young boys who grow up with questionable paternity.” As Malcom Muggeridge observed, had the Incarnation occurred in our generation, an abortion would have been recommended.
Not only was He born with the appearance of sin, He also died with the appearance of sin. Once when Israel rebelled, God sent serpents to bite the people. God also gave a remedy. Moses was to erect a brass serpent on a pole. Whoever looked at the serpent would be healed of their wounds. Jesus likened Himself to this serpent: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Just “as the brass serpent had the appearance of a serpent and yet lacked its venom, so too, when He would be lifted up upon the bars of the Cross, He would have the appearance of a sinner and yet be without sin. As all who looked upon the brass serpent had been healed of the bite of the serpent, so all who looked upon Him with love and faith would be healed of the bite of the serpent of evil.”
The virgin birth confirmed the prophets. He was “despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:3-4)
The Incarnation may be difficult to understand. But perhaps the most difficult thing for us to understand is that a holy, omnipotent God loves us so much that He purchased our salvation. We do not have to pay one red cent. It seems to me that grace is the most difficult part of the story. If we can understand grace, the virgin birth is simple.
Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never New, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), p 32.
Fulton Sheen, Life of Christ (New York: Image, 1977), 90f.
Rodney Shaw is the associate pastor of New Life United Pentecostal Church in Austin, Texas. You can read his personal blog by clicking here.