The miracle of Jesus' birth
"Can you read this?" the tourist asked me, pointing to a large silver star with a Latin inscription: "Hic de virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est." "I'll try," I replied, trying to translate using the full power of my thin Latin: "This is where the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus." "Well, what do you think?" Asked the man. "Do you believe that?"
It was my first visit to the Holy Land and I was standing in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The fortress-like Church of the Nativity is built over this grotto or cave, where, according to tradition, Jesus Christ was born. A silver star, which is set in the marble floor, is to mark the exact point where the divine birth took place. I replied, "Yes, I believe that Jesus was received wonderfully [in Mary's lap]", but I doubted whether the silver star marked the exact place of its birth. The man, an agnostic, believed that Jesus was probably born out of wedlock and that the Gospel accounts of virgin birth were attempts to cover up this embarrassing fact. The Gospel writers, he speculated, simply borrowed the subject of supernatural birth from ancient pagan mythology. Later, as we walked around the cobbled area of the crib square outside the ancient church, we discussed the subject in more depth.
Stories from early childhood
I explained that the term "virgin birth" refers to the original conception of Jesus; that is, the belief that Jesus was received in Mary through the wonderful work of the Holy Spirit, without the influence of a human father. The doctrine that Mary was the sole natural parent of Jesus is clearly taught in two passages of the New Testament: Matthew 1,18-25 and Luke 1,26-38. They describe Jesus' supernatural conception as a historical fact. Matthew tells us:
"But the birth of Jesus Christ happened like this: When Mary, his mother, whom Joseph was familiar with, was found before he brought her home, that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit ... But all that has happened to be fulfilled what the Lord said through the Prophet, who says: "Behold, a virgin will be pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will give him the name Immanuel", which means translated: God with us » (Matthew 1,18:22, 23).
Luke describes Mary's reaction to the angel's announcement of the virgin birth: «Then Mary said to the angel: How is that supposed to happen, since I don't know of any man? The angel answered and said to her, The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the holy that is born will be called the Son of God » (Luke 1,34: 35).
Each writer treats the story differently. The Gospel of Matthew was written for a Jewish audience and dealt with the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah. Luke, a Gentile Christian, had in writing the Greek and Roman world in mind. He had a more cosmopolitan audience - Christians of pagan origin who lived outside of Palestine.
Let us again look at Matthew's account: "The birth of Jesus Christ happened like this: When Mary, his mother, whom Joseph was familiar with, was found before he brought her home that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1,18). Matthew tells the story from Josef's perspective. Josef considered secretly breaking up the engagement. But an angel appeared to Joseph and assured him: «Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife to you; for what she received is from the Holy Spirit » (Matthew 1,20). Joseph accepted the divine plan.
As proof for his Jewish readers that Jesus was their Messiah, Matthew adds: "But all this has happened to fulfill what the Lord said through the prophet who says:" See, a virgin will be pregnant and give birth to a son and they will give him the name Immanuel », which means translated: God with us» (Matthew 1,22: 23). This points to Isaiah 7,14.
With his characteristic attention to the role of women, Lukas tells the story from the perspective of Maria. In Luke's account we read that God sent the angel Gabriel to Maria in Nazareth. Gabriel said to her: «Do not be afraid, Maria, you have found grace in God. Behold, you will conceive and give birth to a son, and you shall name him Jesus » (Luke 1,30: 31).
How is that supposed to happen, asked Maria, since she was a virgin? Gabriel explained to her that this would not be a normal conception: «The Holy Spirit will come on you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the holy that is born will be called the Son of God » (Luke 1,35).
Even if her pregnancy would certainly be misunderstood and her reputation would be jeopardized, Maria courageously accepted the extraordinary situation: "See, I am the Lord's maid," she exclaimed. "It happens to me as you said" (Luke 1,38). Miraculously, the Son of God entered space and time and became a human embryo.
The word became meat
Those who believe in virgin birth usually accept that Jesus became man for our salvation. Those people who do not accept the virgin birth tend to understand Jesus of Nazareth as a human being - and only as a human being. The doctrine of virgin birth is directly related to the doctrine of incarnation, although it is not identical. The incarnation (Incarnation, literally "embodiment") is the doctrine that affirms that the eternal Son of God added human flesh to his divinity and became human. This belief finds its clearest expression in the prologue of the Gospel of John: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1,14).
The doctrine of virgin birth states that the conception of Jesus was miraculously done by having no human father. The incarnation states that God became flesh [man]; The virgin birth tells us how. The incarnation was a supernatural event and included a special kind of birth. If the child to be born was only human, there would have been no need for a supernatural conception. The first man, Adam, for example, was also miraculously made by the hand of God. He had neither father nor mother. But Adam was not God. God chose to enter humanity through a supernatural virgin birth.
As we have seen, the wording of the passages in Matthew and Luke is clear: Mary was a virgin when Jesus was received in her body by the Holy Ghost. It was a miracle of God. But with the advent of liberal theology - with its general suspicion of everything supernatural - these biblical statements have been challenged for a variety of reasons. One of them is the supposedly late origin of the accounts of Jesus' birth. This theory argues that as the early Christian faith established, Christians began to add fictional elements to the essential history of Jesus' life. The virgin birth, it is claimed, was simply her imaginative way of expressing that Jesus was God's gift to humanity.
The Jesus Seminar, a group of liberal Bible scholars who vote on the words of Jesus and the evangelists, takes this view. These theologians reject the biblical account of the supernatural conception and birth of Jesus by calling it "later creation". Maria, they conclude, must have had sexual relationships with Josef or another man.
Did the New Testament writers engage with myths by deliberately making Jesus Christ bigger? Was he just a "human prophet", an "ordinary man of his time", who was later adorned by good faith followers with a supernatural aura to "support their Christological dogma"?
Such theories are impossible to maintain. The two birth reports in Matthew and Luke - with their different content and perspectives - are independent of each other. The miracle of Jesus' conception is indeed the only common point between them. This indicates that the virgin birth is based on an earlier, well-known tradition, not on a later theological extension or doctrinal development.
Are miracles out of date?
Despite its wide acceptance by the early church, the virgin birth is a difficult concept in many cultures in our modern culture - even for some Christians. The idea of a supernatural conception, many think, smells of superstition. They claim that the virgin birth is a petty doctrine on the edge of the New Testament that has little meaning for the gospel message.
The rejection of the supernatural by skeptics is consistent with a rationalistic and humanistic worldview. But for a Christian, the elimination of the supernatural from the birth of Jesus Christ means compromising its divine origin and its fundamental significance. Why reject the virgin birth when we believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ and in his resurrection from the dead? If we allow a supernatural exit [Resurrection and Ascension], why not a supernatural entry into the world? Compromising or denying Virgo birth deprives other doctrines of their value and importance. We no longer have any foundation or authority for what we believe as Christians.
Born of God
God involves himself in the world, he actively intervenes in human affairs, overrides natural laws if necessary to achieve his purpose - and he became flesh [human] through a virgin birth. When God came into human flesh in the person of Jesus, he did not give up his divinity, but rather added humanity to his divinity. He was both God and man (Philippians 2,6-8; Colossians 1,15-20; Hebrews 1,8-9).
Jesus' supernatural origin sets him apart from the rest of humanity. His conception was a God-determined exception to the laws of nature. The virgin birth shows the extent to which the Son of God was ready to go to become our Redeemer. It was an amazing demonstration of God's grace and love (John 3,16) in fulfilling his promise of salvation.
The Son of God became one of us to save us by adopting the nature of humanity so that he could die for us. He came into the flesh so that those who believe in him can be redeemed, reconciled and saved (1 Timothy 1,15). Only one who was God and man could pay the immense price for the sins of mankind.
As Paul explains: «But when the time was fulfilled, God sent his son, born of a woman and put under the law to redeem those who were under the law, so that we could have children (Galatians 4,4: 5). To those who accept Jesus Christ and believe in his name, God offers the precious gift of salvation. He offers us a personal relationship with him. We can become sons and daughters of God - "Children who are not born from the blood, nor from the will of the flesh, nor from the will of the man, but from God" (John 1,13).