Amidst the pageantry and imagery associated with the Nativity, the Virgin Birth can sometimes slip through the cracks. It doesn’t lend itself to artistic interpretation and is typically the first point of attack by skeptics against the Incarnation.
Can modern Christians believe an ancient miracle story, they ask, about a virgin getting pregnant by the Spirit of God? In turn, there are modern Christians who react to the Virgin Birth with a kind of embarrassment, downplaying or dismissing it as metaphor or myth.
The Scriptures, however, present the Virgin Birth as historical reality that fulfilled messianic prophecy, integral to the Word becoming flesh. The creeds of the Early Church concur, including the Virgin Birth among the core non-negotiable elements of the Christian faith.
Throughout its history, the Church has viewed the Virgin Birth not as abstract theology but as vital to the Gospel. As 21st-century followers of Jesus, it’s crucial we understand why.
Historical and prophetic context
Isaiah 7; 2 Kings 16; 2 Chronicles 28
The book of Isaiah is filled with messianic prophecies, but the one about the Virgin Birth is set in a context we would hardly expect. Seven centuries before the coming of Christ, the southern kingdom of Judah was ruled by Ahaz, a descendant of David and ancestor of Jesus. Ahaz was a bad king. He burned his children as human sacrifices, worshipped pagan deities, and made alliances with pagan nations rather than trusting God.
When the northern kingdom of Israel joined the kingdom of Aram to attack Judah, Ahaz and his people were terrified. God sent Isaiah to reassure Ahaz the attack wouldn’t succeed and offered the unfaithful king any sign he wished – deep as Sheol or high as heaven – to seal the promise. When Ahaz refused, Isaiah responded, “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: See, the virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.”
Because Ahaz refused God’s initial offer, this sign would be intermingled with judgment. It wouldn’t be fulfilled for another 700 years, during which time God would destroy not only Judah’s enemies but Judah itself, although a remnant would return to their land. The fulfillment of the sign at the birth of Jesus would defy understanding – deeper than Sheol, higher than heaven and beyond imagination.
Immanuel: God with us
Matthew wrote his Gospel for a Jewish audience, to show them Jesus was their long-expected Messiah, the son of David and the son of Abraham. To that end, he packed his Nativity account with prophecies from the Old Testament and explained how each was fulfilled by the coming of Jesus.
When it was discovered that Mary was pregnant, an angel appeared to Joseph and told him to go ahead and marry his fiancée because the child in her womb had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. The angel further instructed Joseph that Mary’s son was to be named Jesus – which means “God saves” – because he would save his people from their sins.
Matthew observed that all of this took place to fulfill what God had spoken through Isaiah about the virgin conceiving and having a son who’d be called Immanuel. Matthew also expanded on the original prophecy by explaining that Immanuel means “God with us.”
Jesus and Immanuel – “God saves” and “God with us” – are complementary names that describe the Messiah who was prophesied in the Old Testament. Beyond that, these names suggest he’s more than merely a human descendant of Abraham and David. He is in fact God made flesh who walked among us, born of a human mother and a divine Father.
Son of the Most High
In contrast to Matthew, Luke wrote his Gospel with a gentile audience in mind. His stated purpose was to provide a thorough, carefully researched account, so that his readers might have greater confidence that the things they’d been taught about Jesus were true.
Luke’s Nativity is more detailed and intimate than Matthew’s. It focuses on Elizabeth and Mary, the two expectant mothers whose shared experience of a miraculous pregnancy was unique to all of history. The bulk of the account is told from the perspective of these two women, relying on their voices and most likely on their eyewitness testimony.
While Matthew began with the angel telling Joseph to marry his pregnant fiancée, Luke started further back, with the angel visiting Mary to announce her impending pregnancy. “Now listen,” the angel told her. “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end.”
Mary, a bright and inquisitive young woman, asked the obvious question: “How can this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?”
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” the angel answered, “and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” Almost as an afterthought he added, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
For Luke’s gentile readers, it would’ve been less significant to quote the Old Testament prophecy than to describe its historical fulfillment in detail and tease out its implications. Because Mary was a descendant of David, her son would be the messianic heir to David’s throne, whose kingdom would be universal and everlasting. And because Mary’s child would be conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, he would be the Son of God Most High, sharing the power, glory and nature of his heavenly Father.
Conclusion: Why it matters
Far from being an abstract doctrine or quasi-relevant myth, the Virgin Birth is the lifeblood of the Incarnation. In God’s sovereign wisdom, it was the only way for his Son to enter the world and become fully human yet also remain fully God. Through the Virgin Birth, Jesus took on our humanity, except for our sinful nature, thus becoming our representative who would die in our place and absorb God’s judgment for our sins. Also through the Virgin Birth, he became God with us, the exact image of his Father, with the authority to forgive our sins and grant us eternal life.
There is no Gospel apart from the Virgin Birth. God’s eternal plan to redeem his people and his creation hinges on a young Jewish virgin in 1st-century Judea becoming pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s a unique historical event but also a profound mystery we can’t begin to fathom.
Seven centuries earlier, an unfaithful king refused a sign of God’s deliverance, but God gave one anyway – a sign that would be deeper than Sheol, higher than heaven, dwarfing our wildest dreams and imaginings.
The Virgin Birth rules out the notion that Jesus was merely a human teacher with some good ideas. He was God made flesh, impossible from a human perspective and only possible for God, the all-powerful Creator for whom all things are possible. It’s a miracle and a mystery that leaves us in awe and wonder, and stirs us to cry out, “All glory be to God!”
Sources and further reading
Brandon D. Crowe, “The Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ,” The Gospel Coalition, accessed December 13, 2022.
Greg Lanier, “Why does the Virgin Birth matter?” Reformed Theological Seminary, April 12, 2022.
Rebecca McLaughlin, “How can you believe in a Virgin Birth?” Is Christmas Unbelievable? Four Questions Everyone Should Ask About the World’s Most Famous Story, The Good Book Company, 2021.
J.I. Packer, “Why is the Virgin Birth so important?” Crossway, December 10, 2022.