The doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ is again criticised this Christmas, as it has been on many occasions before. This time it is receiving the attention of St Matthew in the City Anglican Church in Auckland, New Zealand. The billboard poster depicting Mary and Joseph in bed has received much criticism and the responses on the church’s website indicate that it has prompted a mixed response from many people all across the world.
The minister, Glynn Cardy, says he is seeking to remove the “supernatural obfuscations” of the belief in a literal virgin birth. He also seeks to draw a distinction between “progressive” and “fundamentalist” Christianity. The truth is that “progressive Christianity” as defined by Glynn Cardy is not authentic biblical Christianity at all.
I believe in the Virgin Birth, and so do all orthodox Christians. We believe that it is a truth which is not only clearly taught in the Bible, but that it is a fundamental plank of our faith. It is part of the Apostles’ Creed which we recite regularly. We say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary…”
If Jesus were not born of a virgin, then the New Testament narratives are entirely false and unreliable. At least two of the Gospel writers, in saying the Jesus was born miraculously of the Virgin Mary, have stated something that is false and misleading. Mary herself is stained with the sin of immorality and impurity. She was, of course, betrothed to Joseph, which is far more binding than our custom of being “engaged” to be married. It required a certificate of divorce to end this betrothal. And should someone be found to have been immoral, she was not just guilty of fornication but was guilty of adultery. The accused woman was taken to the gate of the city, her clothes were ripped, and her jewelry removed. She was dressed in rags, tied with a rope, and all of the women were brought out to gape at her, lest they should be involved in such lewdness. It was pretty harsh and cruel treatment, but it was an indication of how seriously that society viewed betrothal before marriage.
If the virgin birth is not true, then it is also the case that Jesus was mistaken about His paternity. He repeatedly declared that He was the Son of God, and that God was His Father. Without a miraculous birth, Jesus was nothing but an illegitimate child, certainly not the perfect and peerless Son of God. And if that is the case, then he was just a sinner like the rest of us. And as a sinner, He cannot be the divine Redeemer, because the sacrifice must be perfect. Therefore we have no Saviour. We are still in our sins and we have no forgiveness. We have no hope after death. There is no mediator between God and man. There is no Trinity, because there is no Second Person of the Trinity.
In short, the Deity of Christ, The Lordship of Christ, The Saviourhood of Christ, The Bodily Resurrection of Christ, The Second Coming of Christ, and the new birth of the Christian believer are all dependent upon the fact of the Virgin Birth. Without the Virgin Birth of Christ none of these other beliefs make any sense. In attacking this doctrine some people are undermining the whole Christian faith.
So why is this doctrine disbelieved and attacked? One of the reasons is a basic anti-supernatural bias that refuses to accept the miraculous at all. Quite clearly, if you don’t believe in miracles, you don’t believe in the Virgin Birth, which was clearly a miracle.
Think of it this way. If there is a God who created the universe, if He flung the galaxies out from His fingertips, if He painted the night sky with a scintillating Milky Way, then surely for Him to take a tiny seed and place it in the womb of a woman is not really a big deal or a difficult thing for him to do?
Keep in mind that when God created the world, we are told in Genesis 1, He placed that same kind of seed in every animal, in every fruit, in every tree, in every plant that exists on his planet – billions and trillions of them. Why should it be thought a thing impossible that God should simply place a “Y” chromosome in the womb of a woman to produce a male child?
If you can’t believe that God can do that little thing, you really don’t believe in God at all. If He can’t do that, He can’t do much of anything. Behind all this unbelief lurks the gaping abyss of atheism. And one reason for unbelief is the anti-supernatural bias which prevails in the hearts of many people.
And that is linked to a view of the world which says that if God exists, and if he created the world, he has no direct involvement in it anymore. Some people say that God lives in a world and in a realm which is cut off from the one in which we live and which has no connection with our world. That’s why when many people say that they believe in God, they will often add in the same breath that they don’t go to church, and they don’t pray and they don’t think much about God from one year to the next. Bishop Tom Wright says that he doesn’t blame them. “If I believed in a distant, remote God like that”, he says, “I wouldn’t get out of bed on a Sunday morning either.” What is the point in believing in a God who is not involved in our world and who is incapable of acting in our world?
But the Christian and biblical view of the world is that heaven and earth overlap and interlock. The sphere where God lives and the sphere where we live are not separated; they intersect. That means that we believe that God makes his presence known and seen and heard within the sphere of this world. And the supreme manifestation of God’s presence in this world was the coming of his Son Jesus Christ. He was called Emmanuel, God with us. So the place where God’s space and our space intersect and interlock is no longer the Temple in Jerusalem where God originally made his presence known. It is now in Jesus Christ himself. And his entry and appearance in this world was wonderful and miraculous.
How did it happen? Gabriel says to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
Notice the importance and centrality of the Holy Spirit in the birth of Jesus. In both Matthew’s account and the account in Luke, the Holy Spirit is a central figure in bringing about the birth of Christ. For centuries prior to the birth of Jesus, the Spirit of prophecy had been silent. But notice how Luke refers to the return of the Holy Spirit in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Earlier in Luke 1 we are told about elderly Zechariah getting on with his priestly duties in the temple and an angel appeared to him to tell him that his aging, childless wife, Elizabeth will have a son. And significantly, this son, John, will be filled with the Holy Spirit.
And now Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her. The phrase Gabriel uses about the Spirit “coming upon” Mary is a standard Old Testament expression to describe the Spirit’s activity. God by his Spirit “came upon” people in the OT era to equip them for special service and ministry. When the Spirit comes upon a person, he clothes himself with that person’s life and uses it for his own purposes. That’s what happened with Saul and David and Samson in the OT.
And it is also the case that in the OT barren, childless women were able to give birth to children because of God’s intervention. The birth of Isaac and Samuel and Samson were all miraculous births. They were born because of the powerful action of God in the lives of their mothers. But here in the birth of Jesus, these OT principles reach a new climax. It is not just a barren woman who becomes pregnant, but it is a virgin woman who is with child. And it is the result of God the Holy Spirit coming upon her.
The other phrase which Luke uses in 1:35 is this: “the power of the Most High will overshadow you”. The original words here are the same as those used in the Greek translation of the original Hebrew when it refers to the hovering or overshadowing of the cloud of God’s glory-presence. Psalm 91 says that the Lord will cover you with his feathers and under his wings you will find refuge. And it is referring to way God hovered over his people and protected them as they wandered through the wilderness. They were “over-shadowed” by the protecting and powerful presence of the Lord.
It was the Spirit of God that hovered or over-shadowed the waters at the original creation and out of that deadness and darkness brought life and light. It was the Spirit of God that hovered, eagle-like, over his people at the exodus and brought them safely out to freedom. It was the Spirit of God in the pillar of cloud and of fire that overshadowed God’s people through the wilderness wanderings. It was the cloud of the glory of the Spirit that represented the presence of the Lord in the tabernacle and in the temple. It “overshadowed” his temple and his people. But it was Ezekiel who in one of his most dramatic visions, witnessed that shekinah glory of God departing from the temple. God’s presence was removed because of the people’s sin. But in the very last book of the OT, in the prophecy of Malachi, God promised that he would suddenly return to his temple.
And now Mary hears these significant words, full of rich and deep meaning from the OT: “the power of the Most High will overshadow you”. “What’s happening, Mary, is that the glory of the Lord is returning. It will overshadow you and envelope you. The glory that was formerly hidden and only seen occasionally would now be seen, not in a building or a tent, but in your baby, Jesus Christ. This baby will be the result of the activity and intervention of God the Holy Spirit.” So John writes, “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Where did John see Christ’s glory? The only other place in Luke’s Gospel where this verb “overshadowed” is used is in chapter 9 where it says that on the Mount of Transfiguration where Christ’s glory was revealed to Peter, James and John. It says there that a cloud appeared and “overshadowed” them or enveloped them. At that moment when Jesus was talking with Moses and Elijah on the mount, the glory-cloud overshadowed the disciples. They were in the presence of the God of glory. Could any clearer indication be given that what is going on here in Luke 1 is that God is breaking into our world with his awesome glory and his holy presence? By his Holy Spirit, God is doing a new thing in revealing his glory in the birth of the son of Mary. In order to give birth, this virgin girl will be overshadowed by the power of the Most High. It is a work of new creation, supernatural creation.
This promise given to Mary of the “coming upon” her and “overshadowing” of her by the Spirit, had one specific purpose in view: “So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” The function of the Holy Spirit was to maintain the holiness and the sinlessness of the one who was to be born.
When our children are born, it is an occasion for great joy and delight, and for much happiness. But no matter how perfect or lovely our babies may appear to be, they all share one feature that is passed on from their parents. That is their sin. We are sinners by nature; and we pass on our sinful nature from one generation to the next. If a perfectly holy and sinless baby was ever to be born into this world, it would require a supernatural conception and birth. Without that miracle, the baby would be as sinful and imperfect as every other baby.
Science demands that every effect have a sufficient and adequate cause. And in a world where everyone has sinned; where no one is righteous; where the heart is deceitful about all things; where the front pages of the newspapers all over the world, every day, morning and night, proclaim the sinfulness of man, the fall of mankind, they are declaring that Genesis 3 is true. Our first parents sinned and we have inherited their sinful nature.
Yet, in the midst of the mud heap of this world, there grows a single, solitary, pure life. How do we explain it? How come that there was one Person in history whose life was perfect? The Bible says that He was holy, blameless and pure. He was the “holy one”. Every effect must have an adequate or sufficient cause. The only adequate cause of the sinlessness of Jesus Christ is the fact of the Virgin Birth. He didn’t inherit that venom of sin which has poisoned the human race from the beginning.
Our human nature needed to be acted upon by the Holy Spirit in order to be sanctified. And while the NT does not unravel all that this involved, it is clear that it required the work of the Spirit who is himself called “holy”.
Without that amazing work of the Holy Spirit, you and I would have nothing to rejoice in this Christmas. If Jesus was just an ordinary baby, born in the normal way, with normal, natural parents, we would have no Saviour to save us, no Redeemer to redeem us, and no Lord to lead us. But the good news of Christmas is that God has acted. The Lord has come! And we can be saved.
Fast-forward the story of Jesus’ life to the end, as he is led out to be executed. His crime is that he has claimed to be the Son of God. In the eyes of the Jewish authorities that is blasphemy. And Mary his mother is watching as the events unfold. She sees his beaten back and his thorn-crowned head. She sees him staggering and falling under the weight of the cross. She hears the thump of the hammers as they nail him to the cross. She listens to his cries of pain and agony. Why didn’t she intervene? What mother would allow this to happen, especially if the charge against him could be disproved? Why didn’t she jump forward out of the crowd and say, “Stop all this punishment now! This is unjust. He’s not God’s Son! I’ll tell you the name of his father. I know how I became pregnant.”
But she stood silently, weeping. She knew the truth. She knew how he had been born. What woman ever forgets the birth of her child? And she knew that it was miraculous. Her son was God’s Son.
This Christmas we celebrate the birth of God’s only Son, “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary…”
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 Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried, He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead, He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit; The holy catholic Church; The communion of saints; The forgiveness of sins; The resurrection of the body, And the life everlasting. Amen.