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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: What Everyone Needs to Know about Jesus

Don Stewart :: Is the Virgin Birth to Be Understood Literally?

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Is the Virgin Birth to Be Understood Literally?

What Everyone Needs to Know about Jesus – Question 29

The Bible teaches the Virgin Birth, or more properly, the Virgin Conception of Jesus Christ. The New Testament records the fact that God the Son became a human being in Jesus Christ. The means through which this was accomplished by the Virgin Birth; Jesus was conceived without the aid of a human male. It was a miraculous birth though it was a genuine human birth.

The Bible has a number of important things to say about this matter. We must make the following observations.

1. From Eve to Christ: All Humans Were Conceived by Natural Processes

When God made the first man Adam, He made his body out of the dust of the earth. We read about this in the Book of Genesis:

...the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7 NIV)

Adam was formed from the earth, from the dust of the ground.

On the other hand, Eve, the first woman, was created from the side of Adam. This is also described in the second chapter of Genesis:

So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. (Genesis 2:21, 22 NIV)

She, like Adam, was supernaturally created. Neither Adam nor Eve had a human father or mother.

All humans since that time have received their body through the natural processes, the union between a man and a woman.

2. Jesus Was Conceived without the Aid of a Human Male

However, when Jesus Christ was conceived it was without the aid of a human male. We read of the angel Gabriel explaining to Mary the conception of the Christ Child:

Then the angel told Mary, “Don’t be afraid! God is pleased with you, and you will have a son. His name will be Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of God Most High. The Lord God will make him king, as his ancestor David was. He will rule the people of Israel forever, and his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:30-33 CEV)

According to Scripture, Jesus’ birth was miraculous. Indeed, it was one of a kind. Nobody, before or since, has entered our world in this particular manner.

3. The Old Testament Preparation for the Virgin Birth

The Virgin Birth, or Virgin Conception, had been part of the plan of the God of the Bible from the very beginning. Indeed, it was prefigured in the Old Testament.

In Genesis 3:15, we read of God announcing the following judgment to the serpent in the Garden of Eden after the sin of Adam and Eve:

“You and this woman will hate each other; your descendants and hers will always be enemies. One of hers will strike you on the head, and you will strike him on the heel.” (Genesis 3:15 CEV)

The seed of the woman is a prediction of the coming Messiah or Deliverer. This is where this prediction will find its ultimate fulfillment. In other words, the Messiah was to be born from the “seed of the woman.”

The seed of the woman would bruise the head of the seed of the serpent. The promise gives the first hint of the Virgin Birth. We can make some further observations.

A. The Messiah Would Be Virgin Born

As the Old Testament history began to unfold further evidence was given that the Messiah would be virgin born. We read the following predictions in the Book of Isaiah:

“All right then, the Lord himself will choose the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel—‘God is with us.’” (Isaiah 7:14 NLT)

There has been considerable controversy about the Hebrew word almah, used in Isaiah 7:14, whether it means “virgin” or “young woman.” In fact, many English translations use “young woman” instead of virgin when translating this verse. For example, we read in the New Revised Standard Version,

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14 NRSV)

The word is not a technical term for “virgin” but rather means a young woman who has the characteristics of virginity. However, it should be noted that in all seven occurrences of almah in the Old Testament it never refers to a young woman who has lost her virginity.

Supposedly there is a better term in Hebrews for virgin—bethulah. Yet bethulah can refer to a woman who is not necessarily a virgin. This is found in Joel:

Mourn like a virgin [bethulah] in sackcloth grieving for the husband of her youth. (Joel 1:8 NIV)

Consequently, the word does not necessarily mean virgin.

B. The Woman Was Assumed to Be a Virgin

Even if Isaiah was only referring to a young woman who was ready for marriage, the assumption would be that she was a virgin. Under the Mosaic Law a woman could be stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock. What can be said is that almah is consistent with the idea of a young woman who has not had any sexual relations with a man. In other words, she would be a virgin.

The Evidence from the Septuagint Translation

There is also the issue of the Septuagint translation. The Old Testament was translated from the original Hebrew into Greek some two hundred years before the time of Christ. This translation is known as the Septuagint, or seventy. When they translated the Hebrew word almah in Isaiah 7:14, they used the Greek word parthenos.

This is the usual word for “virgin.” Hence we can observe that before the time of Christ the people understood the passage to refer to a special birth. However, it is probably too much to say that the people were expecting the Messiah to be virgin born.

4. The New Testament Evidence

While the virgin birth is predicted, and implied in the Old Testament, the New Testament writers make it clear that Jesus Christ was virgin born. The evidence is as follows.

Matthew

The Gospel of Matthew makes it clear that Jesus was miraculously conceived. On a number of occasions, Matthew relates the supernatural way in which Jesus came into the world.

A. The Listing in Jesus’ Genealogy

In Matthew 1:2-15 we have a number of people listed who fathered sons. For example it says, “Abraham begat, or fathered, Isaac.” Each name in the genealogy is written this way.

However in verse 16, there is a change in the way in which the genealogy is written. Rather than saying that someone “fathered” the son, the phrase reads, “Jesus was born.” Nothing is said about Joseph being the father of Jesus.

In contrast to all the preceding men listed in the genealogy, Joseph is not said to have fathered Jesus but rather Jesus was born to Mary. This deliberate change of phrasing emphasizes that Joseph had nothing to do with the conception of Jesus.

B. The Christ Is Born of Mary, Not Joseph

Matthew is always careful to state that Jesus was born of Mary, not Joseph. He writes,

...and Jacob [was] the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. (Matthew 1:16 NRSV)

The phrase “of whom” is in the feminine gender in Greek. Consequently it cannot refer to Joseph but must refer to Mary. The New Living Translation puts it this way:

Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Mary was the mother of Jesus, who is called the Messiah. (Matthew 1:16 NLT)

Jesus was Mary’s child, not Joseph’s. The New Testament always makes this abundantly clear.

C. The Holy Spirit Is the Source of Jesus’ Birth

On two occasions, Matthew makes it plain that the Holy Spirit was the source of Jesus’ conception. We read the following in the first chapter:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:18-20 NKJV)

Matthew makes it unambiguous to his readers that Jesus was not the physical son of Joseph. Jesus was supernaturally conceived.

D. The Fulfilled Prophecy of Isaiah

Matthew also cited Isaiah 7:14 in identifying Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of a virgin birth:

So the Lord’s promise came true, just as the prophet had said, “A virgin will have a baby boy, and he will be called Immanuel,” which means “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:22, 23 CEV)

He understood the prophecy to predict that the Messiah would be virgin born.

There is something else which must be appreciated. Matthew was one of the original twelve apostles. Therefore it is possible that the virgin birth of Christ was part of what the apostles taught the first church at Jerusalem. We are told,

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42 NRSV)

It is quite possible that the doctrine of the virgin conception of Jesus was part of the apostles’ doctrine.

Luke

Luke, the writer of the third gospel, also testified to the virgin conception of Jesus. The evidence is as follows.

A. Luke’s Testimony to the Virgin Birth

While Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience, Luke, a Gentile doctor, was writing to a Gentile audience. He, like Matthew, emphasized Jesus’ virgin conception. Twice in his account of the annunciation of Jesus’ conception, he refers to Mary as a virgin. We read,

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. (Luke 1:26, 27 HCSB)

Luke clearly specifies that Mary was a virgin.

Since she was a virgin, Mary asked the obvious question about how she could have a child. Luke records the following:

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34 NRSV)

She realized that if she were to have a child it would be from a miraculous birth.

The angel made it clear that the conception of this Child would indeed be a miracle. Luke explains what he said:

The angel said to 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 holy; he will be called Son of God.” (Luke 1:35 NRSV)

The conception of the Child would be miraculous. Indeed, the Holy Spirit would be the One involved in the conception of this child rather than a human male.

We also find that the child will be called “the Son of God the Most High.” The angel said,

“He will be great and will be called the Son of God Most High. The Lord God will make him king, as his ancestor David was.” (Luke 1:32 CEV)

He is never called the biological son of Joseph.

B. Jesus Was the Son of Mary

We note that in the announcement of the conception of Jesus, the emphasis is on the fact the He is “her Son.” In the birth narrative, Jesus is never called “Joseph’s son,” “his Son,” or “their Son.” Rather, Jesus is the “Son of the Highest” and the “Son of God.” Clearly Joseph was not the actual father of Jesus.

His Father Was God, Not Joseph

There is more. At age twelve, Jesus Himself reminded Mary who His real Father was. They found Jesus in the temple, confounding the elders with His wisdom. The Bible then explains what occurred:

So when they saw Him, they were amazed; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.” And He said to them, “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” (Luke 2:48, 49 NKJV)

His Father was God, not Joseph. Jesus had to be about His business.

Later, in Jesus’ genealogy, Luke identified Him as follows:

When Jesus began to preach, he was about thirty years old. Everyone thought he was the son of Joseph. But his family went back through Heli... (Luke 3:23 CEV)

While people may have assumed Jesus was Joseph’s son, in reality, He had no human father.</

Luke Received These Truths from Eyewitnesses

It is important to note that Luke’s gospel is based upon his careful research as a historian. He explained this in his prologue:

Many people have tried to tell the story of what God has done among us. They wrote what we had been told by the ones who were there in the beginning and saw what happened. So I made a careful study of everything and then decided to write and tell you exactly what took place. Honorable Theophilus, I have done this to let you know the truth about what you have heard. (Luke 1:1-4 CEV)

The virgin birth of Christ was not just a rumor or a myth. Indeed, it was the actual way in which God the Son entered into this word. While it is not a miracle that can be verified by eyewitnesses, such as the resurrection, we have the testimony of Mary and Joseph.

Jesus’ Teaching on His Origin: He Was from Above

Jesus Himself taught that His origin was from above. John records Him saying the following:

Jesus replied, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come from God and am now here. I have not come on my own initiative, but he sent me.” (John 8:42 NET)

Jesus said that He had come from God. He realized that His birth was miraculous.

Jesus Acknowledged Mary as His Mother

Jesus also acknowledged Mary as His mother. We also read about this in the Gospel of John. He wrote,

When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple He loved standing there, He said to His mother, “Woman, here is your son.” (John 19:26 HCSB)

He never said that Joseph was His father. Never.

Others spoke of Jesus as the “son of Joseph.” We read of this in Luke’s account:

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22 NRSV)

However the Bible is clear that Jesus wasn’t the physical son of Joseph. He only could be called Joseph’s son in the adopted sense.

Jesus Claimed God as His Father

While at age twelve, Jesus reminded His mother Mary that God was His Father, He also claimed God as His Father when He was an adult.

On a number of occasions during His public ministry, Jesus claimed that God was His Father. When Jesus cleansed the temple He said,

He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:16 NRSV)

This was “His Father’s house.” It was not “their father’s house.”

Jesus Claimed Equality with the Father

Later, Jesus claimed equality with God the Father. In the Gospel of John, we read of this astounding claim of the Lord:

But Jesus said, “My Father has never stopped working, and that is why I keep on working.” Now the leaders wanted to kill Jesus for two reasons. First, he had broken the law of the Sabbath. But even worse, he had said that God was his Father, which made him equal with God. (John 5:17, 18 CEV)

Jesus clearly claimed that God was His Father, not Joseph. This is one of the reasons why the Jewish leadership wanted to kill Jesus. They understood what He was claiming. To them, it was blasphemy.

The Testimony of God the Father

God the Father also testified that Jesus Christ was His Son. The New Testament records three different occasions in which the Father acknowledged the Son with an audible voice.

The Father Acknowledged Jesus at His Baptism

At Jesus’ baptism we read about God the Father giving testimony to the identity of the One who was baptized:

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17 NRSV)

On this occasion, the Father verbally acknowledged Jesus as His Son.

The Father Acknowledged Jesus at the Transfiguration

At the Transfiguration of Jesus, the Father again testified to the Son. Matthew wrote,

While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said: This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him. Listen to Him! (Matthew 17:5 HCSB)

Thus, we have a further confirmation of Jesus’ claims by God the Father.

The Father Acknowledged Jesus in Front of the Crowds

Finally, in front of the multitudes the Father again recognized the Son. We read the following statement of Jesus in the Gospel of John:

Now I am deeply troubled, and I don’t know what to say. But I must not ask my Father to keep me from this time of suffering. In fact, I came into the world to suffer. So Father, bring glory to yourself. A voice from heaven then said, “I have already brought glory to myself, and I will do it again!” (John 12:27, 28 CEV)

In doing this, the Father acknowledged Jesus as His Son with an audible voice in front of the large crowds.

It Was An Appropriate Entrance Into The World For God’s Son

The virgin birth was an appropriate entrance of God the Son, Jesus Christ, into the world. Since He lived a miraculous life that finished with the miracle of His resurrection and Ascension, it is not inconsistent that He entered the world with a miraculous birth. Thus, the virgin birth is in complete harmony with the other miraculous elements of the life of Jesus.

Summary – Question 29
Is the Virgin Birth to Be Understood Literally?

The evidence is clear that God the Son, Jesus Christ, came into the world by means of a virgin birth, or virgin conception. While God directly created the man Adam, the first woman Eve was taken from the body of Adam. All humans since then have received their body through the union of a man and a woman, Jesus Christ was different. He entered the world without the aid of a human male. It was at the same time a human birth and a miraculous birth. This can be seen as follows.

The Old Testament predicted the virgin birth of the coming Messiah. It started in the Garden of Eden and then continued throughout the Old Testament period. While it was not a major emphasis in the teachings of the Hebrew Scripture, we do find it there.

It is the New Testament where we find the doctrine of the Virgin Birth or Virgin conception, more fully revealed. Matthew and Luke record the fulfillment of the promise. Each of these New Testament writers identifies Mary as a virgin.

In his genealogy, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus was not the physical son of Joseph. He then went on to say that Mary was pregnant before her and Joseph had any type of physical relationship Matthew records the angel of the Lord visiting Joseph who announced that Mary’s pregnancy was a supernatural work of God. The remainder of Matthew’s gospel consistently teaches that Jesus was supernaturally conceived.

Luke’s gospel teaches the same thing. He records the conversation the angel Gabriel had with Mary when she was still a virgin. From this episode, it is clear that the conception of the Child was supernatural. As is true with Matthew, Luke consistently emphasizes that Jesus’ conception was a miraculous work of God.

During His public ministry, Jesus Himself testified to the fact that God was His Father. He too acknowledged that He had a miraculous conception. Never do we find Jesus teaching that Joseph was His biological Father.

We also find that God the Father verbally acknowledge Jesus as His unique Son on three different occasions. At Jesus’ baptism, transfiguration, as well as on one occasion in front of the crowds, the Father audibly testified to the Son.

Consequently, the virgin birth, or more properly, the virgin conception of Jesus Christ, is an established truth of the New Testament.

Why Is Jesus Called the Last Adam and the Second Man? ← Prior Section
Why Do We Find the Virgin Birth Only Recorded in Matthew and Luke? Next Section →
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