The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will crush your head, and you will strike His heel.”
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”
“I am the Lord's servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
“I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”
Today we are taking a look at one of the most controversial doctrines of the Christian faith, the virgin birth – or to put it more accurately, the virgin conception.
Stuart Briscoe, in his series on the creed says “Next to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, perhaps the one event of His life that has received the greatest amount of attention is the virgin birth. Certainly next to the resurrection, it is the most debated and controversial.”
Probably the reason that it is so hotly debated is simply that virgins do not have babies. The first point which non-Christians and the Christian doubters make is the biological impossibility of a virgin having a baby.
So how do we respond to that? Before we try to, bear in mind that it is not our responsibility to explain or rationalise the Christian faith. Those who have tried will tell you how exhausting an exercise that can be.
The question is not how we should respond to the doubters out there, but rather the doubts within. We’ll get onto the necessity and the reasons for the virgin birth in a moment, but it is important that we try to deal with our own natural skepticism of such a miraculous event.
So how do we take it on board in our own minds?
For some reason, despite the Bible being littered with miraculous stories, the story of Jesus being conceived by the Holy Spirit seems to be a bizarre stumbling block for many people, even Christians. The parting of the Red Sea, turning water in to wine, blind people seeing, lepers being healed – for most of us they're not too much of an issue. But conception by the Holy Spirit? No, that's not possible, many say.
Of course, many atheists and secularists use the Christian belief in Mary conceiving by the Holy Spirit to highlight how ignorant and simple Christians are. How can we believe something that is so clearly scientifically impossible, they wonder incredulously.
I'm always amused by this. Of course it's impossible - that's kind of the whole point, isn’t it?
A few weeks ago we considered what it meant to say that we believe in God, the Father Almighty. The key word here is Almighty. The angel Gabriel summed it up perfectly when Mary questioned him about how all of this could possibly happen by replying “Nothing is impossible with God.”
The truth about what is or isn't possible is entirely dependent on the worldview that you hold. If you don't believe in God and can only accept what our physical world of time, matter, and space reveals, then of course it is going to be difficult to accept even the existence of the Holy Spirit, let alone the fact that said Holy Spirit can get a woman pregnant! But to the open-minded, to those who have eyes to see, to those who have caught a glimpse of the God who lies behind all that exists, the definition of what is possible is unlimited in scope.
Remember that it is God who established the laws of nature, and this gives Him the right and the power to overcome those laws as and when He wishes.
Another definition of this is the word miracle. Anytime that God chooses to overcome a natural law with the supernatural, is a miracle. A virgin conceiving a child is a clear “violation” of the laws of nature, and that’s what makes it a miracle.
In Genesis 3 we find the first clue that the Saviour of the world would be remarkably different to any other human being when the Lord said to satan in verse 15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will crush your head, and you will strike His heel.”
The irony is that the first ever evangelical message was preached to satan!
This is a very dramatic prophecy of what was to come.
God’s sovereignty had been challenged by sin, and He was telling satan what He would do to counter that challenge. In a sense God tells satan that the seed of the woman would challenge him. The result would be that satan’s head would be crushed, but at the same time, the seed of the woman would be bitten on the heel.
This is a clear prophecy of the victory which Jesus would have over evil, but also of the tremendous cost that it would involve at Calvary.
Note the language used in verse 15. In the NKJV it is translated as “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.”
When we talk of the conception of a baby, we talk of the male seed, and the female receptivity of the male seed.
It is most unusual to talk about the ‘seed of the woman.’
This is the first sign that the conception and birth of the promised Messiah would be very different to that of normal child birth.
But rather than try to defend the possibility of the virgin conception, a much bigger question for us to consider is the reason for such a miraculous birth.
Why was it so necessary?
Once we begin to understand the answer to that question, it will be easier for us to accept the miracle of the virgin conception in the first place.
Basically, it was necessary in order to protect the sinlessness of Jesus.
Ephesians 2:3 sums up very accurately the problem of human sin: “we were by nature objects of wrath.”
Sin is in our genes, and sin and the condemnation which is the result of human sin is passed down to every single human being who ever has or ever will live. Except one.
If Jesus had been born into the human race naturally, He would have been an object of wrath also.
Had Jesus been conceived by an earthly father, the seed of the father, and his blood would have ‘infected’ Jesus.
The Bible makes it clear that we are all infected by sin, as we are the descendants of Adam.
Some theologians have put forward the theory that the main purpose of the virgin birth is merely to remind us that Jesus Christ was special and different.
If you think about it, when a small child asks what God is like, our usual answer is ‘Jesus.’ We know that there is something special and unique about Him.
Had Jesus been born of natural parents, He would have been an ordinary human being, so the theory goes that the main purpose of the virgin birth is to remind us of His uniqueness. He is certainly unique, and it is not incorrect to say that the virgin birth reminds us of this fact, but it does fall a bit short of the real purpose – the need to preserve His sinlessness.
The question is sometimes asked why it was even necessary for Jesus to enter our world through normal childbirth. Why did He not just appear as a newborn baby, or as a teenager or even an adult?
This seems a reasonable question, but as sinful human beings we are unable to see God’s unveiled glory without being spiritually blinded, and the only way we would be able to “cope” with this would be to see God as fully God and fully human.
In Exodus 33:20 God said to Moses “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
Sinful human beings cannot see the holiness of a perfect God.
A simple example is looking at the sun during a solar eclipse.
Looking directly into the sun during an eclipse will damage our eyes, so the only way we can cope with looking into the full splendour of the sun is with some kind of protection, such as a welding mask.
In Jesus Christ, God has revealed Himself to us, and we would simply be too awestruck if we were to see God in all His glory and splendour.
Until such time as we are in Heaven, the only way we could cope with seeing God would be in human flesh.
There is a story of a young child which describes this point very well.
Just after getting into bed on a freezing winter’s evening, he heard a tapping noise on his window sill. He carefully opened the curtain to see two small birds shivering in the snow. They somehow knew that it was much warmer in the house.
Feeling sorry for the birds, he opened the window, but as soon as they saw him they flew away.
He closed the window, and a few minutes later they were back and continued tapping on the window. Again he opened the window to let the birds in, and again they flew away in fear.
This went on a few times, and the little boy began to feel desperate, as the birds were clearly struggling with the cold.
Eventually he thought to himself, “If only I was one of them. Then they wouldn’t be afraid of me, and would come inside where it’s warm.”
This is a bit simplistic, but imagine God in Heaven, seeing the mess we have made of our lives, thinking to Himself, “What can I do to show them that I still love them and that I want them to spend eternity with me? If I arrived on earth in all my splendour, they’d be terrified and would run away. What can I do to talk to them in a way that won’t scare them off?”
We all know the answer to that question. Of course, we also know and believe that it didn’t really happen this way. Jesus was not Plan B, and it’s vital that we understand this.
God didn’t look down from Heaven and say, “Well that didn’t work out too well, did it? Now what am I going to do?”
Max Lucado says it best. “The way Jesus marched to His death leaves no doubt: He had come to earth for this moment. Read the words of Peter. ‘Jesus was given to you, and you put Him to death by nailing Him to a cross. But this was God’s plan which He had made long ago; He knew all this would happen.’ The journey to Jerusalem didn’t begin in Jericho. It didn’t begin in Galilee. It didn’t begin in Nazareth. It didn’t even begin in Bethlehem. The journey to the cross began long before. As the echo of the crunching of the fruit was still sounding in the garden, Jesus was leaving for Calvary”.
As Jesus reveals God to us, and lived a sinless life, so He had the authority to point us to God. It is only Jesus who had the right to say, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
No other human being has had the right to do that.
Jesus was the only one qualified to be the spotless Lamb of God.
So the unique birth points us towards the unique life of Jesus. It also enabled Jesus to live out His unique ministry while on earth. He was without sin, which made it possible to live a life of total dependence on and obedience to God.
The vast majority of Christians are notoriously bad examples to the rest of the world.
Many non-Christians are turned away from Christianity by the bad behaviour of Christians, and who can blame them?
Jesus is the example we should be pointing them to, because His human life was untainted by sin, which would have been impossible if He’d been the biological child of a human father.
As Christians, we are not called to fully understand complicated doctrines like the virgin conception and birth.
If we try to defend it, the doubters will eventually wear us down, and we will find that our own faith may let us down too.
What we are called to do is to believe in faith and learn from the lessons Jesus taught us during His perfect and sinless life.
He lived a life of total obedience to His Father, and it should be our aim to become more Christlike, despite the fact that we know we’ll not quite get there.
Paul said in Ephesians 5:1-2, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
The miraculous virgin conception of Jesus is not just an incidental thing, meant to make us sit up and realise that He was just different to us.
Our salvation actually depends on it. In order to serve as a sin sacrifice, Jesus had to be a true human being, and He had to be sinless at the same time.
Had Jesus not been entirely sinless, then just like the Old Testament priests, He would have had to make an offering for His own sin first, but that would mean that He would not have been in a position to die for ours.
Jesus could not be the sacrifice for us unless He was a sacrificial victim entirely without blemish. And so, for the sake of our salvation, it was necessary to be a true man, and yet without sin.
If Jesus had been born into the human race in the normal, natural manner that we were born, He would also have been an object of wrath, just like us.
So God needed to perform a supernatural act, and He did this through what we call the virgin conception, or the virgin birth.
God’s solution to the challenge of providing a perfect sacrifice was simply brilliant, and brilliant in its simplicity.
The doctrine of Jesus being fully human and yet fully divine, and His divine conception being the means of cutting the endless line of sin being passed from Adam to generation after generation, is absolutely crucial to the Christian faith.
Being born of a virgin is not only a reminder of the uniqueness of Jesus.
The message behind His miraculous conception and birth is a deep theological message.
He had to be untainted by human sin, and for this reason, He could not have a biological, human father.
Don’t allow the illogical doctrine of the virgin birth to be a stumbling block to your walk of faith. It is so important that we pray against this (and we will in a moment).
The author Donald Macleod writes in his book The Person of Christ:
“The virgin birth is posted on guard at the door of the mystery of Christmas; and none of us must think of hurrying past it. It stands on the threshold of the New Testament, blatantly supernatural, defying our rationalism, informing us that all that follows belongs to the same order as itself and that if we find it offensive, there is no point in proceeding further.”
Do you believe in God? Then by faith you have no reason to doubt the story of Jesus being conceived by the Holy Spirit.
The story is important too in that the very birth of Jesus carries the wonderful message that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit (divine), and born of the virgin Mary (human).
The ultimate significance of the virgin birth is that since Jesus was conceived by God the Spirit, rather than a human father, God Himself was His Father, which meant that His lineage was holy, and untainted by human sin. And because of that, Jesus was able to save us from our sins. That’s the good news. That’s the gospel.
That’s why, regardless of the ridicule of the non-believing world, we can say with absolute conviction ‘I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”