“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [’God is with us’]” (Isaiah 7:14, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV).
The verse quoted above is best known to Christians because of its being quoted in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus (1:18-25). Discovering that Mary, who was betrothed (pledged to be married) to him, was pregnant although they hadn’t had sexual relations, Joseph decided to divorce her but to do it quietly to avoid putting her to shame. However an angel of the Lord told him in a dream not to be afraid to marry Mary because the Holy Spirit had caused her to conceive. The angel went on to tell Joseph, “You shall call his name Jesus [‘saviour’] for he will save his people from their sins” (1:21). Matthew adds that all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by Isaiah.
However in Isaiah the prophecy was given by the Lord as a sign to Ahaz, the king of Judah, that he had nothing to fear from Syria and Israel, who had joined forces against Judah. The Lord went on to tell Ahaz that before the promised child had reached an age in which he could refuse the evil and choose the good Assyria would remove the threat of Syria and Israel. Thus Ahaz would expect Isaiah 7:14 to be fulfilled in his lifetime. Bible scholars disagree on who the promised child was, but history tells us that shortly afterwards Syria and Israel did fall to Assyria (in 732 and 722 B.C.; the prophecy was made shortly after Ahaz became king in 735 B.C.). But, as Matthew observes, the prophecy was also fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, his being born of a virgin and being God with us.
Luke also records that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. He does so in his account of the angel Gabriel’s visiting Mary before the birth of Jesus (1:26-38). Gabriel told her, “[B]ehold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and call his name Jesus” (1:30), and, on her asking how this could be, her being a virgin, Gabriel told her, “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” (1:35). Thus, although the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 was fulfilled partially in Isaiah’s day, it found its full fulfillment in the birth of Jesus Christ.
Despite the Bible’s affirmation of the virgin birth of Jesus in both of its accounts of his birth, many objections have been made to it. Here I’ll present and respond to four of them.
– The brothers of Jesus did not believe in him during his ministry (John 7:5), suggesting that they didn’t know of a virgin birth. However it’s possible that Mary and Joseph hadn’t yet told them of it.
– The New Testament is silent about the birth of Jesus except for the two passages quoted above. However, as Theodore M. Dorman points out, “This is an argument from silence, however, and carries no force when we keep two things in mind: (1) only Matthew and Luke write anything at all about Jesus’ birth, and (2) the Birth narratives are historical accounts, not theological interpretations” (Theodore M. Dorman, “Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ,” in The International Standard Encyclopedia of the Bible, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988; volume 4, page 992).
– There are parallel accounts in the literature of other religions. Dale Moody responds, “The yawning chasm between these pagan myths of polytheistic promiscuity and the lofty monotheism of the virgin birth of Jesus is too wide for careful research to cross” (Dale Moody, “Virgin Birth,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George Arthur Buttrick; New York: Abingdon Press, 1962; volume 4, page 791).
– The virgin birth cannot be reconciled with the preexistence of Christ. However his preexistence relates to Jesus’ deity and the virgin birth relates to his humanity.
(For a fuller consideration of objections made to the virgin birth, see Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, third edition; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2013; pages 683-687.)
So far I’ve demonstrated that the Bible affirms the virgin birth of Jesus and that objections to it can be adequately answered. But why is the virgin birth important? Obviously one reason is that it is affirmed in the Bible, God’s Word. However there are other reasons, three of which Wayne Grudem considers in his Systematic Theology:
1. It shows that salvation ultimately comes from God. As Galatians 4:4-5 says, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive adoption as sons.”
2. It made possible the uniting of deity and humanity in one person. God could have sent His Son into the world as a man in other ways (Grudem considers two other ways), but the virgin birth was the best way for Him to do it so that both Jesus’ deity and his humanity were evident.
3. It made possible Christ’s humanity without inheriting a corrupt nature from Adam. But wouldn’t he inherit a corrupt nature from Mary? Grudem suggests that when the Holy Spirit caused her to conceive Jesus He also prevented the transmission of sin from her to Jesus.
(For a fuller consideration of these three ways in which the virgin birth is important, see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994; pages 530-532.)
As we celebrate Christmas this year “[m]ay we not make it our concern to commit ourselves afresh to the reality and wholeness of the Christmas gospel as the very carols sung from our lips attest it, and with this gospel humbly accept the holy birth of Jesus which in the wisdom and power of God is so apt to denote the significance of his saving action as the incarnate Mediator, the first-begotten of the new creation and family of God?” (”Our Lord’s Virgin Birth,” Christianity Today, December 7, 1959; for the full text of the article, see Our Lord’s Virgin Birth)