Why the Virgin Birth?

One of the more peculiar teachings of the Christian faith, affirmed throughout all of the creeds, is the fact that Christ was born of the virgin Mary. Meaning, Mary had not had any relations before she gave birth to Christ.

Both Matthew and Luke agree on this fact. In Luke’s account, the angel Gabriel announces that Mary will birth a child. Mary, not being married, rightly asks: “How can this be, since I am still a virgin?” (Lk 1:34). Gabriel answers: “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” (v. 35).

Matthew’s account is similar. He adds the detail the her virginal birth is in fulfillment of prophecy: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (Mt 1:23).

There is not much more information about the virgin birth in the epistles. Some say that Paul alludes to it in Galatians 4:4, or that John references Mary in Revelation 13. But there are not really any more details about this. It is simply stated in the gospel accounts.

Many have speculated, with such scarce reference in the New Testament, what is the purpose of the virgin birth? Or, to say it another way: did Mary have to be a virgin to give birth to Christ? Was there some necessity to it? Did the virginal birth, as some presume, in some way preserve the divinity of Christ? Or preserve the sinlessness of Christ?

Frederick Bruner has an interesting examination of the doctrine in his commentary on Matthew, Christbook. His estimation is that the reason for the virgin cannot be found in preserving Christ’s divinity or sinlessness. He aptly points out:

If the first Adam — whoever he was — came into being without two human parents and yet was truly human, why could not Jesus the last Adam be without a single human parent and still be truly human? “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14) (pp 39)

In other words, Jesus could come into the world in really any way he wanted, and be fully God and fully man, sinless. God, after all, is omnipotent!

So then, why the virginal birth? Bruner cites Karl Barth, saying:

The virgin birth teaches an immensely important doctrinal truth: that in human salvation “the initiative is wholly with God”. The doctrine of the virgin birth, in a striking metaphor, stands “on guard” before the door of the mystery of Jesus’ divinely wrought salvation — only God can work salvation, and this is exactly what the Christmas stories’ virgin birth teaches with a dramatic eloquence. (pp 40)

In other words, the incarnation of Christ is a complete work of God. Because she was a virgin, Mary was merely a recipient of God’s grace. Man had nothing to do with it.

Joseph Ratzinger, in his Introduction to Christianity, agrees with this. He says:

The Virgin Birth is not a lesson in asceticism, nor does it belong directly to the doctrine of Jesus’ divine Sonship; it is first to last a theology of grace, a proclamation of how salvation comes to us: in the simplicity of acceptance,as the voluntary gift of the love that redeems the world… In Jesus, God has placed, in the midst of barren, hopeless mankind, a new beginning that is not a product of human history but a gift from above. (pp 278)

Because of this, Ratzinger concludes that Mary herself is an image of the church. He says:

As the true “daughter of Zion”, Mary is the image of the Church, the image of believing man, who can come to salvation and to himself only through the gift of love — through grace.

I think that Bruner and Ratzinger both get to the bottom of the doctrine of the virginal birth: it is an action of grace. A unilateral action of God in which man is passive, having nothing to contribute. All is grace!

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Son of Abraham, Son of David, Son of God (sermon)

big story of christmas

Here is my latest sermon from Fellowship Bible Church on the incarnation and the narrative of the scriptures HERE

For more info on this subject, you can read a blog on the incarnation HERE

The Holy Spirit, the Virgin Birth, and the “Genesis” of Jesus Christ

virgin-mary-and-jesus

One of the most common passages thought of during the Christmas season is Matthew 1:18-25. This passage describes the birth of Jesus, and centers on his miraculous conception in the virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit.

While the virgin conception by the Holy Spirit is by credal standards a “non-negotiable”, for quite some time I could not think of the significance of the virgin birth, or the role of the Holy Spirit in Christ’s conception. While we must affirm that the church from its beginning believed and held to the birth of Christ by the Spirit, what is so central about this part of Jesus’ birth?

On the one hand, one could argue that Jesus’ conception by the Spirit preserves or establishes his divine origin. Or, one could argue that the Spirit’s conception preserves Jesus from original sin. Some theologians hold that the sin nature is passed down through the father.

While these could be legitimate theological arguments (and I believe the first is), I think that, paying attention to the text, Matthew gives us a point of his own. In explaining the birth of the Christ, and the miraculous events therein, Matthew describes Christ’s birth as a “genesis”. Literally in the Greek, in verse 18, Matthew calls Jesus’ birth “the genesis of Jesus Christ”.

Now this is a very interesting phrase to use, especially considering the fact that Matthew brings in the Holy Spirit as God’s power or hand in Christ’s “genesis”.

The reason the Holy Spirit is so important in all of this is because the last “genesis” God accomplished was also by the power of the Holy Spirit. Genesis 1:2 tells us that the Holy Spirit was God’s power in the creation. What’s even more striking is that in Colossians 1, Paul tells us that God the Son, Jesus, was the person through whom God created the world.

In Matthew 1:18, we see both the Spirit and the Son involved another type of “genesis”. Do you think that it is any coincidence that Matthew makes all these connections? I really don’t think so. I think what Matthew is saying in this passage is that God is making a new creation. And he’s doing it the same way as the old: through Christ, by the Spirit.

In other words, what Matthew is saying in verse 18, is that in God the Son, by God the Spirit, God the Father is making a new creation. He is restoring this fallen world from the grips of sin, and doing it in his regular Trinitarian fashion.

And so in the virgin birth, we find God making a new creation through the birth of Christ. God the Father declares that a new humanity (in Mary) should be created through Jesusand by the Holy Spirit.

Consequently no man was involved in Christ’s conception, because only God has the power create. And only God has the power to recreate his fallen creation. And so God the Father speaks, and it is done through Christ by the Spirit. And because of it, we find a new world unfolding in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus!

Frederick Dale Bruner, from his excellent commentary on Matthew, says this on verse 18:

The genesis of Jesus (and of faith in Jesus) inside any human life, the apostolic witness almost unanimously teaches, is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Creator Spiritus, who began the world’s creation (“the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters,” Gen 1:2), and who now begins the world’s new creation and it’s definitive salvation. The permanent value of the credal doctrine of the Spirit’s conception of Jesus in Mary is this; it is the Holy Spirit and not human initiative that brings Jesus into personal life (then Mary’s, now ours). When Jesus comes to anyone in history, even in his Advent coming to Mary, it is always the work of the Spirit, not of human preparation or enterprise. Every conversion is a virgin birth… The Holy Spirit, in other words, is the miraculous how of New Life. Mary’s virginal conception by the power of the Holy Spirit teaches this thrilling doctrine of the Holy Spirit pictorially.

What an interesting observation that Bruner makes here, “every conversion is a virgin birth”. Indeed, when we are saved, God speaks, and initiates a new creation by his Spirit through Christ. This recreation was started at Christ’s birth, and is finished in our miraculous new birth in Christ. 

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17).