[Note: I have begun a new series on the Gospel of Matthew. This is the second message from that series.]
I’ll never forget the time an evangelist named Richard “Little Bear” Wheeler came to speak to our local home school group. He is known for his dramatized messages, using historical costumes and props to tell stories from American history, with a focus on God’s hand in the principal characters and events of our country’s founding. Since he was staying with us over night, my father was tasked with picking him up at the airport and getting him to the event at which he was to speak. My dad had never met the man, so he was a little worried about finding him at the airport. His worries proved unnecessary, however, when a man stepped into the lobby where my dad was waiting, fully dressed in a costume looking very much like George Washington! His entrance was such that it was obvious who “Little Bear” Wheeler was!
In the same way, at state events when a monarch enters the room everyone knows who the King or Queen is – even if they have never seen him/her before. It should not surprise us, then, that the coming of Jesus into the world would be such as would underline the significance of his person. After all, as the Evangelist has been already pointing out, Jesus is the Son of David and heir to his throne. Jesus of Nazareth is a King, and therefore we should expect his entrance into the world to highlight the significance of his person.
How Jesus Came into the World: the Virgin Birth
Most of the time, when people talk about the arrival of Jesus in this world, the focus is on the humiliating circumstances in which he was born: the birth in a stable, laid in a feeding trough, born to humble and poor parents, welcomed by a few otherwise unknown and unimportant shepherds, and so on. And, of course, this is all true. He was born “in a low condition,” as the Shorter Catechism puts it. In many ways, Jesus’ entry into our world was totally the opposite we would expect of a king.
And yet, as Matthew tells it, this is not the whole story. In fact, Jesus came into this world in a surprising way remarkable for its uniqueness and its grandeur. For he was born of a virgin.
Up until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, no one in the Christian church even doubted the virgin birth. It was just part and parcel of the Faith. In fact, if anything, the greatest theological danger associated with the virgin birth of our Lord was an undue worship given to Mary, the mother of our Lord. Thus – as far as I could tell – though Charles Hodge’s systematic theology deals with the errors associated with Mariolatry, it doesn’t even address the virgin birth at all. Similarly, when I looked up Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology or Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (though it was published in 1932), there was no treatment in either of these texts on the virgin birth. My guess is that they just didn’t see a need to address it.
The theological landscape had changed, however, by the 1920s. By that time it was not uncommon for Christian leaders like Harry Emerson Fosdick to make statements to the effect that it was just not necessary to believe in a virgin birth of Christ, that the gospel accounts of Christ’s birth was phrased “in terms of a biological miracle that our modern minds cannot use.” They would claim that “side by side with them [the orthodox] in the evangelical churches is a group of equally loyal and reverent people who would say that the virgin birth is not to be accepted as an historic fact. To believe in the virgin birth as an explanation of great personality is one of the familiar ways in which the ancient world was accustomed to account for unusual superiority.” It was for this reason that Princeton theologian J. Gresham Machen wrote a book specifically defending the virgin birth (1924).
By the way, that last statement by Fosdick is instructive. Note that he says that the virgin birth was invented by the early church to account for the “unusual superiority” of Jesus. What Fosdick is implying is that he agrees that Jesus as a man was unusually superior. But he did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God. For him, Jesus was a rather remarkable man, but that’s as good as it got. So there just was no need for a virgin birth.
What we are going to see is that the Biblical portrait of Jesus demands the virgin birth, not only because it says this is the way he was born, but because of who Jesus is.
We have already noted that Matthew is very careful in the genealogy not to make Jesus the physical descendant of Joseph: Joseph is the husband of Mary “of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (v. 16). The “of whom” in the Greek is singular and feminine, making it very clear that Jesus is the son of Mary alone. Matthew now expands on how this happened: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way” (v. 18).
Whereas Luke focuses on Mary in his account of the birth narrative, Matthew focuses on Joseph. He tells us that Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant during their betrothal “before they came together” – meaning, before their marriage took place when the bridegroom ceremoniously came to take his bride back to his home. This was serious, because by the pledge to be married one entered a legally binding relationship, and could only be broken by a writ of divorce. To be unfaithful at this stage was therefore considered adultery.
Which is exactly what Joseph thought had happened. He did not realize at first that she was “with child from the Holy Spirit” (v.18). So, “being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame,” he “resolved to divorce her quietly” (v. 19). I want to pause just for a moment and reflect on what this says about Joseph. As John Murray has put it, “there is something superbly noble in Joseph’s character. . . . Here is the enviable combination of uprightness and mercy, justice and tenderness.” On the one hand, Joseph’s love of God required that he divorce (what appeared to be) his unfaithful bride. On the other hand, Joseph’s love of Mary kept him from making a big to-do about it. He didn’t want to make her a public spectacle. It must have been an incredibly painful decision. But he acted in a way that was perfectly consistent with love to God and love to Mary – despite her apparent unfaithfulness.
Then the angel of God intervenes: “But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’” (v. 20). Joseph’s fear is probably fear of disobedience to God rather than any fear from the insults of men. Therefore, when he learns that this is of God, and that God is commanding him to go forward with the marriage, he promptly responds in obedience to the instructions of the angel: “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (v. 24-25). His obedience was immediate!
Note that two times in the text it is pointed out that Mary conceived as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit. Luke similarly, in the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary: “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” (Lk. 1:35). This is as close as we get to the mystery of the virgin birth of our Lord. It is the work of God, and we should be content with that. For those who have a problem understanding how a virgin could become pregnant or how God could become a man, should we not say with the angel, “For nothing will be impossible with God”? (Lk. 1:37).
The Bible is clear. Jesus is not the son of Joseph. He is the son of Mary alone in a physical sense, being conceived in her by the power of the Holy Spirit. Just to underscore this point, Matthew says in verse 25 that Joseph did not know his wife until after Jesus was born. “Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body, and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.”
Who IS Jesus?
What does this tell us about Christ? I love the fact that the Bible doesn’t leave us to guess. In fact, the names given to our Lord by the angel (v. 21) and by prophesy (v.22-23) make it very clear exactly who was being born of Mary.
First of all, Joseph is told by the angel that Mary “will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21). The name Jesus means “Savior.” However, it means a bit more than just that. Though there were at least two significant OT figures whose names were Joshua (Hebrew equivalent to “Jesus”), the angel does not refer to them as a reference to what was meant by the name Jesus; rather, he does so by virtually quoting Psalm 130:8, “And he [the LORD, Yahweh] will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” In other words, the one who is to be born of Mary is given a title which properly belongs only to God and a work which only God can perform.
The OT is adamant that God alone can save his people: “I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior” (Isa. 43:11); “There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me” (Isa. 45:21); “But I am the LORD your God from the land of Egypt; you know no God but me, and besides me there is no savior” (Hos. 13:4); “Salvation belongs to the LORD” (Ps. 3:8). Thus, Jesus is not just another self-proclaimed “savior”; he is the divinely appointed savior from sin, a role uniquely reserved for God in the OT.
Jesus came to save from sin. Notice the particularity of this salvation with respect to sin: “he will save his people from their sins.” He did not come to save from sin in some general sense. He did not defeat sin in abstraction. Rather, he came to save us from the particular sins with which we have sinned against God. And he saves us from them. He does not save men and women in their sin, for that would not be salvation. A person who truly sees their need of forgiveness must necessarily see the ugliness and horror of sin. Such a person will want to be freed, not only from the penalty, but from the power of sin as well. And this Jesus does. He saves us from sin’s guilt, he saves from sin’s dominion, and he will one day free us from sin’s presence and the consequences of it in our broken bodies.
But no one would seriously believe that a mere man could do this. It’s interesting that those who deny that Jesus is God also as a matter of course deny that Jesus saves from sin; at most, they say that Jesus is just a good example of how to live before God. Thus, the proclamation that Jesus saves from sin is also a proclamation of his deity.
And therefore, we can have supreme confidence in his ability to save. As the author of Hebrews puts it: “he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him” (Heb. 7:25). Consider how the angel put it: “he will save his people from their sins.” There is no doubt about it. If you belong to Christ, you will be saved. He did not come simply to provide accommodations for salvation, or merely to make salvation vaguely possible and contingent upon autonomous man. Rather, he came to accomplish redemption for his people. As he would put it later, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (Jn. 6:39).
It should not surprise us then, that Matthew (or the angel – it is not entirely clear who is speaking these words) says, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Mt. 1:22-23).
There has been much discussion over the passage in Isaiah (7:14) from which Matthew is quoting. A lot of debate has taken place over the word in the Hebrew text which is translated “virgin” in our Bibles. Some want to take this to mean merely a woman of marriageable age. J. A. Motyer has made an impressive argument in his commentary on Isaiah that “virgin” is the most appropriate translation. In any case, the translator of the LXX certainly understood it to mean “virgin” (Gk. parthenos) and this is the word that Matthew uses. And he clearly sees this as a prophesy of the virgin birth of Christ.
Another thing debated over is: who is this Immanuel? Again, Motyer makes a good argument that, given the unity of chapters 7-9 of Isaiah, we should identify him with the child promised in 9:6-7. This child is called, among other things, the “Mighty God,” and is the one who will establish the throne of David forever. Therefore, we should not understand the name Immanuel to mean that the child brings with him the promise of God’s blessing, but rather that the child is God with us.
Thus, Matthew is giving us a clear indication who Jesus is. He is the Savior from sin – he does the work of God. And he is Immanuel – he brings the presence of God. One can hardly resist the conclusion that Matthew wants us to see that Jesus is God incarnate. He is human, for he is born of a woman. And he is God, for he who was born is the Savior from sin, and Immanuel, God with us.
The Significance of the Virgin Birth
This brings us back to the virgin birth. What is its significance in terms of the person of Christ? It’s not that God could not have brought his Son into the world any other way. At least, the Scriptures give us no reason to suppose that God could not have brought Christ into the world with a truly human body already formed in heaven, or that he could not have brought Christ into the world through the normal means of a mom and a dad.
I think of it like this: it’s not that a king could not enter his kingdom without ceremony and honor. He could. But it would not be fitting. A king should be accorded that honor that belongs to such an elevated position. In the same way, I believe that God brought Christ into the world through the miraculous event of a virgin birth because such an entrance into the world was the most fitting for the King of all the earth. And it helps us to see that Jesus is that King in at least three ways.
First, it shows us that salvation is something that can only be accomplished by God and not by man. For the one who came to save us from our sins had a birth that can only be described as miraculous. Jesus was born by supernatural means; his birth required the intervention of the Holy Spirit in order to take place. Mankind, with all its technology, cannot duplicate the virgin birth. It is something only God can do. Thus, from the very beginning, we are reminded that God, and God alone, can save us from our sins.
Second, the virgin birth shows us how it was possible for Jesus to be fully human and fully divine. If God had formed Christ’s body in heaven, and sent him immediately to earth, it would be hard for us to see how he could be fully human, since that is so unlike the way any other human person is born. Or, if Jesus had been born of two parents, it would be hard for us to see how he was God, since he was so like us in every way. But since Jesus was born of a virgin through the power of the Holy Spirit – by the combination of human and divine influences – it helps us to see how Christ could be both God and man “in two distinct natures and one person forever.”
Third, it also helps us to see how Jesus could be born without sin. Certainly, Jesus could not save us from our sins if he was entangled with the guilt of his own. However, by being born of a virgin through the power of the Spirit, we can see how Jesus could have been born without the guilt and corruption that belongs to every other human being. In fact, Scripture itself seems to point us in this direction. For example, the angel Gabriel tells Mary: “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” (Luke 1:35).
It should be pointed out that Scripture does not warrant the belief that Jesus did not inherit sin because Mary was sinless (“immaculate conception” refers to Mary in Roman Catholic theology, not to the virgin birth). He did not inherit it because, as Luke 1:35 indicates, the Holy Spirit prevented any possibility of the transmission of corruption and guilt.
To sum up, the virgin birth is fully compatible with and supports the view that Jesus is God with us, the Sinless One sent by the Father to save us from our iniquities. And, in light of this, should this not give hope to everyone who sees that they are without God and without hope in this world? Is it not great news to guilty and dirty sinners like you and I that Jesus shall save his people from their sins? Should we not therefore turn to Jesus and pray to him to take our burden and release us from the guilt of our sin?
It is sin that will bring sinners down to the pit of destruction and everlasting despair. It is Jesus alone who saves from sin and sins. . . . How can we expect to be saved from sin and its consequences if we are indifferent to Jesus’ claims? He can have no saving effect upon us unless we are bound to him in the bonds of faith, and love, and hope. How sweet the name of Jesus to the contrite sinner. It is ‘a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Tim. 1:15).
 Harry Emerson Fosdick, in his sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Quoted in: http://www.albertmohler.com/2008/12/23/can-a-christian-deny-the-virgin-birth/
 The Collected Writings of John Murray, iii:179.
 Shorter Catechism, Q.22.
 See Wayne Grudem’s Sys. Theol. (1994), p. 529-532.
 Murray, iii: 184.