By Dr. Bill Patterson
“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). Since Immanuel means “God with us,” it is easy to see why Matthew and Luke considered this a prophecy of the virgin birth given nearly 800 years before Jesus fulfilled it.
Yet prophecies of the Messiah precede Isaiah’s prediction by hundreds of years. The oldest of these is Genesis 3:15: “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.” The word translated “offspring” in the New International Version is literally “seed.”
The ancient prophets wondered what that Scripture meant. Seed belongs to the man. Yet Scripture said the seed of the woman should bruise the serpent’s head. The mystery is explained when we understand it as the first prophecy of the virgin birth.
That prophecy came true on the first Christmas night when Jesus was born. In his infinite mercy God came down from Heaven and wrapped himself in our physical form. Pure, holy, and undefiled, he was without sin; yet he became sin for us. He gave himself as our Redeemer and Savior. The virgin birth made this possible. God in human flesh was born that night in Bethlehem.
The Virgin Birth Doubted
In our day of artificial insemination, a mother can give birth to her baby without the normal means of conception. Of course, that process did not exist in the day of our Lord—and even if it had, Mary could not have afforded it!
The prophecy of the virgin birth has been called “the most disputed of all the Messianic prophecies.” Friedrich Schleiermacher in 1799 tried to make Christianity palatable to those who rejected miracles. He held that neither the virgin birth nor the resurrection had to be believed in order for a believer to have “faith.” In the 1890s several German ministers and theologians refused to use the Apostle’s Creed because of their disbelief in the virgin birth.
In more recent times Episcopal Bishop John Spong, in his book Born of a Woman (Harper Collins, 1994) denied the virgin birth. Others who support the so-called “Jesus Project” have attempted to make Christianity plausible to those who no longer believe in miracles. They hold that the term used in Isaiah for virgin (almah) means maiden and not necessarily one who had never been intimate with a man.
When people doubt the virgin birth, we should reflect that Mary questioned it first. When the angel approached her and told her she would bear the Son of God, she said, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34).
Joseph also had difficulty until the angel appeared to him in a dream. And we really can’t blame Joseph. In our time if a young lady came to be with child without being intimate with her fiancé, we would expect him to have questions too.
The Virgin Birth Affirmed
The angel put to rest Mary’s fears. He told Mary that her relative Elizabeth, already well past the age of child bearing, would have a son. Mary visited her and found this to be true. The angel also told Mary, “Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37, Contemporary English Version).
Just imagine it. Like other young Jewish girls in her day, Mary had heard Isaiah read many times. She and her friends probably talked about who would be the fortunate mother for this virgin-born Immanuel. Then she found out that the Holy Spirit would overshadow her and that she would bear the Son of God!
The term “overshadowed” does not have a sexual connotation. God impregnated Mary without any sexual act. If there had been normal relations, Mary would not have been a virgin. The fact that she and Joseph doubted at first makes the story more believable, not less believable.
As for the word almah in Isaiah—yes, it does mean an unmarried young lady. However, people in that day assumed that maidens were virgins. When the Old Testament scholars translated the Hebrew into Greek, a version called the Septuagint, they used parthenos, a word used for virgins. And when Matthew translated the reference to Isaiah 7:14 he also used the word parthenos (Matthew 1:23). Luke, too, used parthenos when identifying Mary (Luke 1:27). The clear teaching of Matthew and Luke is that Mary gave birth to Jesus and that Mary remained a virgin until she gave birth to him (Matthew 1:25).
Those who disbelieve the virgin birth do so primarily because they reject a biblical worldview. The secular worldview has little room for miracles. If people discard miracles, they cannot believe in the virgin birth (or, for that matter, in the miracles of Jesus, in the resurrection, in a person’s being born again, and so on). The basic doctrines concerning Jesus, including the virgin birth, all begin with Old Testament prophecies.
The Bible teaches that those who do not believe the resurrection are not just careless with their theology; they are lost (1 Corinthians 15:12-20). In no place does it make a similar statement about the virgin birth. It is entirely possible that a person could hear the Good News of the Lord Jesus, become convicted of sins, and receive the Lord without ever hearing or knowing about the virgin birth. However, when people become aware of the virgin birth, they instantly grasp that it fits in with their other understandings of Jesus—like a missing piece, when found, fits in a puzzle.
The sinlessness of Christ necessitated that he be born not of man, but of God. If Jesus had not been sinless, he could not have been a sinless substitute for us on the cross. The only one in the world who had no sin became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The Importance of the Virgin Birth
Two New Testament passages explicitly teach the virgin birth: Matthew 1 and Luke 1. No other New Testament passage disputes the doctrine and several hint of it.
John, for instance, clearly teaches Christ’s preexistence (John 1:1). Then “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14, NIV). Paul wrote, “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Galatians 4:4, 5, NIV 1984). In Romans 8:3 he states, “What the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.” The sinlessness of Christ, his preexistence with the Father prior to being born on earth, and his role as the Second Adam all require the virgin birth.
Some reject the virgin birth because of the superstitions that have grown up around Mary. One large denomination has elements in South America who would like to make Mary the fourth person in the Godhead—a quadrinity instead of a trinity. That denomination has strange doctrines such as the perpetual virginity of Mary. Mary’s perpetual virginity would have necessitated a sexless (strange) marriage and would also be contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture that Jesus had (half) brothers (Matthew 12:46-50). After all, it was Jesus’ half brother James who headed the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Just because some build an inverted pyramid of odd doctrine resting on the apex of the virgin birth is no reason to reject the biblical truth of the virgin birth.
The Truthfulness of Scripture
Not only is the doctrine of Jesus’ sinlessness at stake. The doctrine of the infallibility of the Scriptures is also at stake. Since both Matthew and Luke clearly teach the virgin birth, to fail to accept it is to question the truthfulness of Scripture. If the Bible is false in this area, how can we trust it when it speaks of God’s love for us or when it speaks of our salvation in Jesus?
But the Bible is true. We can trust it. Because of the virgin birth, when Mary held baby Jesus she held a fusion of God and man. She cuddled not just a baby boy, but God made flesh, Immanuel, “God with us.”
Dr. Bill Patterson is a freelance writer in Henderson, Kentucky.
A Dozen Old Testament Prophecies of the First Coming of our Lord
• He would be born of a woman (Genesis 3:15).
• He would be from the line of Abraham (Genesis 12:3, 7: 17:7).
• He would be from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10).
• He would be of the house of David (2 Samuel 7:12, 13).
• He would be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14).
• He would be called Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14).
• He would be preceded by a forerunner (Isaiah 40:3-5; Malachi 3:1).
• He would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).
• He would be worshipped by wise men and presented with gifts (Psalm 72:10; Isaiah 60:3, 6, 9).
• He would live in Egypt for a season (Numbers 24:8; Hosea 11:1).
• Infants would be massacred in the town of his birth (Jeremiah 31:15).
• He would be called a Nazarene (Matthew 2:23).