Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
A few minutes ago we, both individually and corporately, declared, "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary . . . "
Having already addressed the earlier statements of The Apostles' Creed, we now come to two very important phrases describing the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The Creed declares two specific statements about God becoming human. Statement one: He ". . . was conceived by the Holy Ghost . . . " Statement two: He was " . . . born of the Virgin Mary . . . "
Our theme today is the virgin birth. We will address three questions. Question one: Why believe it? Question two: Why so much controversy about it? Question three: So what, in practical terms for you and me?
I. Question one: Why believe in the virgin birth?
Answer: Because the Bible teaches it! And, it has been a core affirmation of the church throughout the centuries.
Our first hint of the virgin birth goes back to Genesis 3, where we meet what theologians refer to as the proto evangelion. It is the first hint of the evangel, the Good News, the Gospel.
You remember the story. God created the universe. He created humankind, male and female. He put them in charge of His creation. He gave specific instructions as to what they were to do and not do as stewards of the Garden. You remember how they were tempted, yielded to the temptation and rebelled against God's sovereignty. Sin, then as now, had its consequences, and they became alienated from God. But even at the earliest moment of human history, God addressed the tempter — Satan in the form of a serpent — declaring, "'Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel'" (Genesis 3:14-15).
Although this is not a full-blown articulation of the future virgin birth, it does refer to the "offspring" of the woman, who would challenge the evil one and crush the serpent's head. However, in doing this, the serpent would strike the heel of her offspring, who would suffer terribly in the process.
In ancient times, most references to offspring would refer to the seed of a man coming to fruition in the birth of his offspring. In this case, the Scripture is specific in giving the first clue that the One God would send to overthrow Satan's rule, the One who would be terribly hurt in the process of doing that, would be the offspring of the woman. Although I would not want to attempt to build the doctrine of the virgin birth on this one biblical reference, we certainly can see it as an early building block toward this belief.
A second Old Testament building block that would point ultimately to the virgin birth can be found in Isaiah 7. It is a well-known prophetic statement, especially well known because it is lifted out of its Old Testament context and quoted by Matthew in the first chapter of his book, which gives the story of the birth of Jesus.
There are two contexts to this Isaiah passage. One is that of the immediate time of Isaiah, when the people of Judah, centered in the capital city of Jerusalem, are under attack. King Ahaz doesn't know what to do. Isaiah tells him to keep calm, not be afraid. Ahaz is astounded at this. Terrible things are going on, and he is about to be ruined. Isaiah tells him that God will give him a sign, "'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). He is telling Ahaz not to worry, matters will work out.
Matthew, many years later, takes this particular story totally out of its context and applies it to the virgin birth and sees it as a prophetic utterance, a prediction of what is going to happen. Those of us who believe that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, that Matthew is inspired and Isaiah is inspired, have no difficulty in saying that the Holy Spirit wants to inspire Matthew to see that prophetic meaning in Isaiah.
There are the skeptics who want to refute this. They say that the Hebrew word translated "virgin," in some translations of the Bible, is the word alma. That word does not necessarily mean a virgin. It can simply mean a young woman. The NRSV Bible we are using translates it "young woman." Immanuel means "God with us." Some may say that the sign simply was that a young woman was going to have a baby, and she would call his name Immanuel, and that would be a wonderful encouragement and reminder to the people that God is with us.
Yes, we can come to this Old Testament passage and see it in its two contexts. We use here a technical theological phrase, sensus plenior, for what is referred to as the "fuller sense" of Scripture. It is quite possible that what Isaiah said to King Ahaz had two prophetic meanings. One was an immediate fulfillment of a child being born who was called Immanuel, and then the fuller sense of the greatest sign to the house of David that the triumph would come through Immanuel, born of a virgin. This is the prediction of Jesus Christ, the ultimate God with us. There is that word for the present, and an additional word for the future.
The very fact that Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, goes back hundreds of years and quotes Isaiah 7, is confirmation to me that this is an Old Testament prophetic building block, predicting the future birth of Jesus.
Third, now we come to the actual New Testament pronouncements themselves.
The first one, given to Mary, is in Luke. An angel comes to Mary, who is engaged to Joseph, and refers to her as "favored one." He declares that "'The Lord is with you.'" Seeing that she is perplexed by his words, the angel declares, "'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear 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 to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end'" (Luke 1:30-33).
In the following verses, we see that Mary questions the angel, "'How can this be, since I am a virgin?'" The angel says 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.'"
Mary was obviously greatly troubled by the annunciation of the angel that she is going to have a baby. How can this be, she declares, I have never had sexual relations with a man. I am a virgin. But the angel makes it clear to her that this conception will be brought about by the Holy Spirit of God.
Matthew describes another side of the story, the part that involves Joseph, in Matthew 1:18-25, how Joseph is engaged to Mary. This betrothal was a sacred arrangement in the first century, more serious than we view engagement today. There was not to be sexual intercourse during this betrothal period. Couples were even referred to as husband and wife. It would take a writ of divorcement to sever the betrothal, but, nonetheless, there was to be no sexual cohabitation. Matthew explains how Mary was found to be pregnant. Joseph, being a righteous man and a man of honor, did not want to embarrass her publicly. He decided to dismiss her quietly. Matthew describes what happened in these terms:
But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Do you see the building blocks? You have the anticipation of the woman's offspring who will ultimately crush the head of the tempter Satan, but, in the process, be severely wounded. We have the prediction of Isaiah, which, if it isn't totally clear in the Old Testament context, Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, clearly refers to it, using not the word for "young maiden" but the word for "virgin," making clear what is happening is the fulfillment of that prophecy.
Both Matthew and Luke go on record to declare that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
Why believe in the virgin birth? Because the Bible teaches it. That's what it says about the parentage of Jesus. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. He was born of the Virgin Mary.
Do I personally understand how this can happen? No! It goes beyond my human understanding.
Do I believe it. Yes, I do! Why? Because the Bible tells me so and because the Church has affirmed this throughout the ages.
II. Question two: Why is there such controversy about the virgin birth?
Answer: Because there is an ongoing battle between naturalistic skeptics and Bible believers who have faith that God can do what is supernatural.
What we see here are two different approaches to the Bible. Now I would be the first to admit that from what I have observed in life, virgins don't have babies. In all my years of counseling, I have never yet had an unwed, pregnant woman attribute her circumstances to the Holy Spirit's action in her life. Things just don't normally happen that way, do they?
So, I can understand the raised eyebrows of those who might have a problem accepting the notion of the virgin birth. If one is going to view this topic simply through the lens that all things happen naturally, there is no way. There have been many persons who simply dismiss the virgin birth as an impossibility, based on naturalistic presuppositions. Often those same persons also question the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Imagine what they do with the rest of the miracles that are described in the Bible. The whole matter of miracles is a problem to some.
Now before we go too far down this track, let me make a qualifier. There are some sincere Christians who do not believe in the virgin birth but do believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. They take the position that belief in the virgin birth is not essential to be a born-again Christian. Their argument is that it is only specifically mentioned by Matthew and Luke. The virgin birth is not even spoken to specifically by the apostles John and Paul. They would say that resurrection is mentioned infrequently throughout the New Testament. Whereas, "Christ is risen" is the most basic affirmation of Christian worship. Therefore, they would not want to spend much time talking about this topic.
I will grant that when you make a public confession of faith in Jesus Christ, we do not ask you to state The Apostles' Creed in full detail. We do not interview you as to whether or not you believe in the virgin birth. We ask you if you have repented of sin and put your trust in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ alone for salvation. We do not give you a doctrinal litmus test.
However, the danger of minimizing biblical doctrinal affirmations such as the virgin birth is what that implies about one's view of Scripture.
Most people I know who deny the virgin birth also deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Recently I read a biography of one of our American presidents who is now deceased. I will not publicly mention his name so as to not distract from the point I am trying to make. The biographer, who had full access to all of his personal papers, came across a term paper written by the president during his university days. In that paper, he declares how, as a young man he was raised in an evangelical Christian family. When he matriculated at college, he had a very basic, orthodox Christian faith. He believed that God, in the miracle of Incarnation, became a man in the person of Jesus Christ, fully God, fully man, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He believed that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead in victory over sin and death. The biographer goes on to quote the very words of that president in that religion term paper. He clearly declares that, as the result of that particular course, he no longer held those beliefs. He wrote how he now believed Jesus was the best man who ever lived, a great example, who died a martyr's death. The resurrection did not happen physically but is simply a spiritual renewal in each of us when we take seriously His teachings and follow them.
What he wrote about in that term paper is not dissimilar to what many people who call themselves Christians believe today. They struggle with the possibility of the supernatural. They see themselves as empiricists for whom everything has to be explained on a factual basis. They believe that there are natural laws in the universe that cannot be broken. Virgins don't get pregnant, dead persons do not rise from the dead, loaves and fishes cannot be multiplied, and diseases are never supernaturally healed. The Bible is not the divinely inspired revelation to us, the only infallible rule in faith and practice. Instead, the Bible is the record of humankind's search after God. It is filled with myths and fables of primitive people that we dare not accept at face value in our contemporary, scientific, enlightened world.
Therefore, they do not believe the miracles. The Bible is not reliable. They question the miracle of the Incarnation.
The true naturalistic cynic is baffled that the orthodox Christian faith still exists. Nicholas Kristof, writing in the August 15, 2003 New York Times, used a report of Americans' increasing belief (83 percent) in the Virgin Birth as evidence of declining intellectualism. He wrote: "The faith in the Virgin Birth reflects the way American Christianity is becoming less intellectual and more mystical over time."
The issue is whether or not the Bible is reliable. The issue is whether or not Jesus is God Incarnate, not just a wonderful, ethical man who was in some way adopted by God to be His prime example of how good, self-sacrificing and ethical a human being could be. The issue is whether or not miracles really happen.
The bottom line is that the Bible says the God of all creation broke into human history in a supernatural way in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God Incarnate. The preexistent God took human form, conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit. This is just one of many miracles in the Bible.
To deny it is to declare that Jesus was a bastard child of a promiscuous Jewish teenager from Nazareth who, according to her culture, should have been stoned to death for her behavior. Or, at the best, Jesus was the love child of an engaged couple who lied to cover up their activities, coming up with a fantastic story of angel annunciations and a virgin birth. Or, it happened just the way the Bible says it happened.
Let me put it in the words of the late Clayton Bell, pastor of the Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, who writes in his book, Moorings in a World Adrift:
I believe in the virgin birth, not because I understand how it happened, but because I trust the witness of Matthew and Luke. I believe in the virgin birth because I find this consistent with believing in "God the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth." I find it easy to believe that the early church was so morally pure and so righteous in its teaching that it would not have perpetrated upon the world such a doctrine if it had not been true. I also believe in the virgin birth because I find it extremely difficult to believe the contrary — that Mary was a morally loose woman and that Jesus was a bastard. I cannot believe that. In light of the life and ministry and teaching of Jesus Christ, and in what we know of the gospel record, I find it much easier to believe that Jesus was indeed "conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary."
III. Question three: So what practical relevance does this have for me today?
Answer: This miracle of the Incarnation, of which the virgin birth is a significant part, has multiple practical implications for you. Let me mention three.
The first: You have a God who empathizes with you.
Some of the people I most admire are my alcoholic friends who are engaged in AA.
The other day I ran into a fellow who found out I was a pastor. He shared how he no longer goes to church. He didn't find spiritual reality in church. Religion wasn't for him. He said he was in a twelve-step program, engaged in AA, and was claiming the help of his "Higher Power" to get him through, one day at a time.
My response was, as it always is, "That's fascinating. Are you aware that every one of those twelve steps came straight out of the Bible? And are you aware that the name of your 'Higher Power' is Jesus Christ?" You should have seen his jaw drop.
I went on to tell him of my personal association with Reverend Sam Shoemaker, the pastor of Bill W. Bill W. had come to him with the steps to help alcoholics, but somehow the steps didn't seem to work. Together they sat down and opened the Bible and came up with these working biblical principles and the notion of a "Higher Power," which made help in addiction available, even to atheists, based on biblical spiritual principles.
What a privilege it is to move beyond just the principles to a personal relationship with the God of all history, whose name is Jesus Christ, and who is present in the power of His Holy Spirit.
That's what happened when God took human form.
Hebrews 4:15-16 declares, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."
Friday night at the Couples Café, we had a "any-question-goes" time in which young couples peppered me with their questions. One asked, "Give your definition of God." I cast around for some rubric and came up with Paul Tillich's definition, defining God as "the ground of all being." That's a profound definition, isn't it? It sort of says it all, doesn't it? According to this definition, God is sort of an abstract sense of force, or divine being, that always has been and always will be. That's right. But God wanted to move out of the abstract to the highly personal. He had revealed himself already through the prophets by His Spirit to people throughout human history. In the fullness of time, the Word became flesh. God became Incarnate. Jesus Christ is God.
The other day someone told me that they couldn't relate to me because I was converted at age five. They were surprised to hear that my call to become pastor of the Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church in Florida was held up for weeks by some of the members of the Pastor Nominating Committee on the basis that mine was a childhood conversion. Two previous pastors, Lane Adams and Ben Hayden, had been converted in mid-adult life and had very dramatic testimonies of how God had turned their lives around. Finally, in my last prolonged interview, when a couple of them hammered at me with this question again, I broke down in tears and said, "I can't change my story. But let me ask you, what do you want for your own children? To have them live like hell and then get converted later in life? Or to know God's love and grace in the person of Jesus Christ from their early childhood on? They'll have enough ups and downs as it is." When the conversation took that turn, tears came to some eyes. I was excused from the room and then called back with the unanimous call of that committee.
Thank God that Jesus Christ identifies with everyone. He is touched with the feeling of our infirmities, He has been hammered by temptation in the desert with Satan. He knows what it is to be beaten up by life and, in his humanity, even to feel forsaken by the Father.
I have been fascinated by the life of Johnny Cash. I read many of the obituaries written about him with avid interest. No man had lived harder, failed more often, been more beaten up by life and could have ended up a broken person with no hope. I loved reading the story about when his life was playing itself out that way and he met June Carter. She told him about her relationship with Jesus Christ and urged him to get God's help in kicking his addiction to prescription drugs. She urged him to join her in attending services at First Baptist Church of Hendersonville, Tennessee. This rugged, beaten-by-life hulk of a man had his life turned around by the Incarnate God whose name is Jesus Christ, who empathized with Cash and the dead end at which he found himself.
Second: This combination of human and divine, the incarnate God, makes Jesus the authoritative teacher of how to live the smart way.
When you come to realize the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, you are able to learn from Him, not as just another human religious teacher but as the preexistent God, now in human form, fully God, fully man.
If you have not yet discovered the profound writings of Dallas Willard, I urge you to get a copy of his book The Divine Conspiracy. It is the kind of book I love to read a few pages at a time. In it, he declares that Jesus is the smartest man in the world. Commenting on His life and teachings, he writes:
All these things show Jesus' cognitive and practical mastery of every phase of reality: physical, moral, and spiritual. He is Master only because he is Maestro. "Jesus is Lord" can mean little in practice for anyone who has to hesitate before saying, "Jesus is smart."
He is not just nice, he is brilliant. He is the smartest man who ever lived. He is now supervising the entire course of world history (Rev. 1:5) while simultaneously preparing the rest of the universe for our future role in it (John 14:2). He always has the best information on everything and certainly also on the things that matter most in human life. Let us now hear his teachings on who has the good life, on who is among the truly blessed.
This is what biblical preaching is all about, opening the Word of God, not just telling cute little human interest stories about a boy and his dog. You and I have access through this One conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, God in human form, teaching us all we need to know to live creatively, and all we need to know to die triumphantly.
That is why I urge you to take advantage of Wednesday evenings when Jim Birchfield is opening the Bible for us to those wonderful teachings of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount. This is radical, life-transforming teaching. Take advantage of it. Open your own Bible, finding God's Word for you for each day!
Third: With this God, anything is possible!
Our God is an awesome God! You and I are not alone!
Take yourself back to the first century. Revisit Luke 1. Refresh yourself with what happened when Mary went to visit her relative, Elizabeth. These two women were mind-boggled at what God had done. Here is a young virgin teenager, pregnant by the Holy Spirit. In her womb is Jesus the Christ. That just happens once. How amazing! She goes to visit her relative, Elizabeth, whose barren womb had been opened. She and her husband, Zechariah, had gotten pregnant. In her womb was John the Baptist! Women her age didn't get pregnant.
Our God is an amazing God. He is the God of all that is in the entire natural order. And He is the God who breaks into that natural order in supernatural ways.
Please know I am not trying to sketch a picture of a God who is a genie, who every time you rub the lamp he jumps at your beck and call, working magic in your life. Much to the contrary. I am talking about a God who sees great possibilities in you and me and is able not only to make good things happen in our lives, but to stand with us in the tough times.
This summer, Anne and I spent a week with four other couples. We found out that, each night after dinner we were going to play gin rummy. I am not much of a card player, had never played the game before, and these couples knew precisely what they were doing. So, I went along with the program, as awkward as I was. At first, very frankly, I was incapable of playing the game by myself. You know what happened? Very graciously the others would hover over my shoulder, helping me arrange the cards, see the combinations, and play the game. Occasionally, I won with their help. Sometimes, I lost with their help. What I appreciated was the encouragement and the knowledge that came from outside.
C.S. Lewis, in a much more graphic way, gives a similar illustration. He talks about playing billiards. You have a nice green table, a cue, three balls — a red one and two white ones. The idea is to hit the white cue ball with your cue and to make it collide with the red ball. A clearly discernable law of nature, or of physics if you like, will tell you that when the white ball collides with the red ball, the red ball will accelerate and the white ball will decelerate at corresponding rates. The energy is simply transferred from the one to the other. That is law. All the naturalists will tell you that's the only way it will work. We can go further and say it is impossible for the red billiard, when hit by the white billiard ball, to travel faster than the white ball is slowing down. C.S. Lewis says "not so." Because after I have hit my shot, I may realize I didn't hit it hard enough. So while you are turning the other way, I simply hit the red ball with my cue and I cheat. Then the red ball will go faster than the white ball is slowing down. And, in his inimitable style, Lewis says, "God cheats." God simply moves into the laws of nature what He has ordained and adds another factor.
What is a miracle? A miracle is God's supernatural intervention in the natural law. God saw what was needed way back in the Garden of Eden. Through the prophets of old, He predicted what would come, the Messiah. God, with His Holy Spirit, took human form in the womb of a virgin, and God has come into this natural order of our lives in the Person of Jesus Christ, who went to the cross on our behalf and now is present in the power of the Holy Spirit.
He is looking over your shoulder, helping you arrange the cards, seeing how they fit together. He is there, helping you learn the game of life, rejoicing when you do well and commiserating with you when you stumble. He is there moving that little red ball a little faster toward that pocket than you are able to do in your own strength.
That is what the doctrine of the virgin birth is all about. Jesus is not just another wonderful man. He is God Incarnate, yearning to have you accept Him as your Savior and your Lord!
This is one of a series of sermons based on The Apostles Creed. Additional sermons from that series will appear in Preaching On-Line in March, April and May.
John A. Huffman, Jr. is the Senior Minister at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA. He is a Senior Contributing Editor to Preaching.