Biblical Perspectives Magazine, Volume 22, Number 30, July 19 to July 25, 2020

The Apostle's Creed: I Believe in Jesus Christ who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary

Matthew 1:18–25, Luke 1:26–38

By Dr. J. Ligon Duncan

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Matthew, chapter 1. As we continue to work our way through The Apostles' Creed, we are going to be looking at those two phrases: "conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary," which speak of what we call in short–hand, The Virgin Birth. We will do it by looking at the two passages from the gospels that give us the most detail about the pre–infancy and infancy of the Lord Jesus Christ. Matthew 1:18 is where we will begin and then we'll look at Luke 1:26.

Let's begin with Matthew 1:18. This is the Word of God.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bear a Son; and you shall call his name Jesus, for it is he who will save his people from their sins." Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled saying: 'Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son and they shall call his name Immanuel, which translated means "God with us." And Joseph arose from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife, and kept her as a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.

Now turn with me to Luke 1:26.

Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And coming in, he said to her, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was greatly troubled at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall 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: and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end." And Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel answered and said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God. And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God." And Mary said, "Behold, the bond slave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her."

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for Your word. Grant us faith to believe it. Enlighten our minds by your Holy Spirit to understand it and by that same grace, enable us to obey and walk in it in truth and life. In Jesus' name, we ask it. Amen.

Our assignment today is to look at the doctrine of the virgin birth. We confess it when we use The Apostles' Creed, saying that we "believe in Jesus Christ, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary." I want you to see three things about that truth as we consider it in these passages today. I want you to see, first of all, the nature or the definition of the virgin birth. What are we talking about when we say that "we believe in the virgin birth." Secondly, I want you to see the grounds for our believing the virgin birth. What is the basis of our embracing this to be true? And then thirdly, I want us to see the significance of the virgin birth and the significance of our believing in the virgin birth. So we'll look at the definition, the fact, and the significance or implications, of the virgin birth together today.

I. The nature of the Virgin Birth.

Let's begin then by looking at the nature of the virgin birth. When we use the phrase "the virgin birth," what do we mean? Actually, that phrase, just like the two phrases we're looking at in The Apostles' Creed today points to two sides of one reality. The virgin birth is theological shorthand for what is described in Matthew 1:18–25 and in Luke 1:26–38. That whole complex of divine intervention, of miraculous conception, of the unique birth of Jesus Christ in which the God of heaven and earth intersected our space–time reality, took on our flesh and dwelt among us in our human nature. The virgin birth is shorthand for that whole complex of beliefs.

The phrase in the creed, "conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary," points out two important aspects of the virgin birth which you've already seen in the passages that we've just read. On the one hand, the phrase, "conceived by the Holy Ghost," points to the divine operation of God, the Holy Spirit, in bringing Jesus Christ into this world. And it reflects the words that you've just heard. For instance, in Luke 1:35 where we read, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most high will overshadow you and for that reason, the Holy child shall be called the Son of God." Or, the angel's words to Joseph in Matthew 1:20, "For the child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit." So when we say "conceived by the Holy Spirit" we are emphasizing the divine operation of the Holy Spirit in bringing Jesus Christ into this world, and when we say, "born of the Virgin Mary," we are pointing to the miracle of Christ's birth.

The phrase, "Born of the Virgin Mary" points to Matthew 1:24 which says, "Joseph kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a son." It reflects Mary's own surprise at the angel's announcement to her. Mary, you are going to have a son; He's going to be the Messiah King. How can this be? Right. That's precisely the point. God is bringing Jesus into the world by a miracle. Is that so surprising? The foundation of Christianity is a mind–blowing miracle, that God has come in our flesh and dwelt among us to save us. There's no way that you can describe that other than a miracle. Is it so surprising that the way He would enter this world would be by a miracle and that the way He would exit this world would be by a miracle––the virgin birth and the ascension. It makes perfect sense, that if God Himself is going to intersect our space–time history, take on our humanity, live amongst us, die amongst us, and be raised again from the dead amongst us, that the way He would come into this world would be a miracle. There's nothing surprising to a Christian about that at all, however implausible that might be to the skeptic. There's nothing surprising about that to the Christian.

You remember the story of C.S. Lewis at Christmas time. His window was open at the University. A skeptical faculty member who was a friend and acquaintance was visiting him in his office and below them there were carolers singing Christmas carols. And some of the carols that they were singing were about the virgin birth. This friend shook his head knowingly to C.S. Lewis and he said, "Aren't you glad that we know better than they?" And C.S. Lewis said, "Pardon me? I'm not sure what you're speaking of." He said, "Well, aren't you glad that we know that virgins don't have babies?" C.S. Lewis paused for a moment and said, "Don't you think they knew that too? Isn't that the whole point?" Yes, that's the whole point. It's not that people were running around having virgin births all the time; that's not why this is drawn attention to in Matthew and in Luke. It's because there is a singularity. There's nothing like it. There's no other thing in all of history just like this. Yes, there are miraculous births and conceptions. In fact, the angel reminds Mary of that when her much older cousin, Elizabeth, has conceived. But there's nothing like a virgin birth. That's precisely the point. God is saying that something unique is happening here. That does not stagger the Christian at all because at the very heart of our religion is a miracle. And if God chooses to bring that miracle into the world by a miracle, it doesn't surprise us at all. So when we speak of "conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary" we are pointing to those great realities. That is what we mean when we say virgin birth.

II. The grounds of our belief in the Virgin Birth.

Now secondly, I'd like to look with you at the grounds for our believing in the virgin birth, the basis of our embracing the truth of the virgin birth. There was a time when this was one of the favorite things for critics to poke at about Christianity. Interestingly enough, not so much in the last 25 years. In the advent of new, staggering advances in biotechnology and invitro fertilization, somehow the virgin birth doesn't look so strange as it used to look to radically skeptical scientific intellects. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of biblical critics who will point this out as a reason why you should reject the historical accounts of the early days of Jesus Christ as they are given to us in the gospels. So, what are our grounds for accepting the truth of the virgin birth? What is the basis of our embracing this belief in the virgin birth?

Let me suggest to you that there are three reasons why we ought to accept this truth. There is a biblical reason, there is an historical reason, and there is a doctrinal reason. Let me walk through each of those with you very briefly.

First of all, it is taught in the Bible, and believers believe the Bible. You cannot believe Jesus as He is intended to be believed by God while rejecting His Word. And He tells us that this is His word. And so a believer who truly believes in Jesus Christ will also believe His Bible, and the virgin birth is taught in the Bible.

More specifically, the virgin birth is taught at length and in detail right here in Luke 1. But when we say that, we immediately run into three objections which are commonly thrown out by liberal critics of the New Testament. And let me categorize these objections as the omission objection, the contradiction objection, and the misinterpretation objection. Critics will first of all say, "Look, I know that Matthew 1 and Luke 1 talk about the virgin birth, but you know what? Nowhere else in the New Testament do we hear about a virgin birth. Therefore Matthew and Luke must have made it up because nobody else knows about it." Let me say two things about that. First of all, there are plenty of other places in the New Testament, and especially in Paul ,which let us know that Paul does know about the virgin birth and does believe in the virgin birth. He says things in ways, in speaking about the birth of Christ, that let you know that he knows and believes that Jesus' very mode of birth was unique and miraculous. But let me just not get into that now. What I really want to zero in on is this fact. Friends, if you say, "Because the virgin birth is not directly and explicitly talked about anywhere else in the New Testament but Matthew and Luke, therefore we're not going to believe it," then you're going to have to not believe a whole lot more than that, because Jesus' birth narratives are not talked about anywhere else in the New Testament but in Matthew 1 and Luke 1. So if you're not going to believe the virgin birth because it is only found in Matthew 1 and Luke 1, then you are also not going to believe that Jesus was born; that Jesus was laid in a manger; that wise men came to visit Him; that shepherds came to visit Him. All of those things are found in Matthew 1 and Luke 1. And it just makes no sense whatsoever that it would be thrown out because they are not told in detail elsewhere. It makes perfect sense. If this is where the infancy narratives of Jesus are recorded then that is where we would hear most explicitly about the virgin birth.

Let me also say, in defense of the historicity of these accounts, that in both of these accounts––Matthew's, which is from Joseph's perspective; Luke, which is from Mary's perspective––you have an almost catastrophe happening. The announcement to Mary that she is pregnant does not leave her saying, "Yipp–e–e–e!" She's troubled. She's perplexed. She's worried. Did it strike you? An angel shows up at your doorstep, you're 13, you're single, and he says, "You're a mom. Your child is God; will be worshipped; is the Messiah; and will reign forever." And you know what Mary wants to talk about? "I'm pregnant?" I'd want to go, "Hey, my kid's going to be king of the world?" I'd want to talk about that a little bit. Mary is going, "But, I'm not married. There's no way that I could be having a baby." The way that this is recorded is not the way it would be recorded if you were trying to make up a story and then import it back onto the actual events. Mary is upset about this. She is not dancing in the streets singing Christmas carols. She is upset by it.

The same thing happens with Joseph. Joseph finds out about this and the first thing that he does is, "OK, divorce." Now let me defend Joseph for a minute. We are told explicitly by Matthew, that because Joseph was a righteous man, he decided to put her away quietly. So, Matthew tells you in that, that Joseph was not only a just man but he was a kind man. He didn't want to embarrass Mary publicly but he couldn't trust her anymore. She had betrayed him and isn't it interesting that the angel comes to Joseph and says, "Don't be afraid to marry Mary." You can trust her, Joseph. The reaction of Joseph to this news initially is the only way that this can be handled is by divorce. We're going to break off this betrothal because this woman has betrayed me. And I don't want to take her to law and I don't want to prosecute her criminally, but I am going to quietly go to the elders and we're going to have this relationship annulled.

My friends, the gospels record for us an utterly realistic account of the actions of two godly human beings to this news. There's no "Of course, right, virgin birth–no problem." It almost breaks up this family. We see on the pages of Matthew and Luke the account of utter realism about two godly, mature human beings responding to the most staggering news possible. And I want to say to you today, my friends, that in God's grace, if He could keep Mary and Joseph together, then He can keep you and your husband or wife together. So we see the biblical evidence. We see Mary's account in Luke; we see Joseph's account in Matthew. We see the corroboration of this elsewhere in the New Testament.

But then critics will say, "But wait a second, Matthew and Luke contradict one another. You look at Matthew and he says one thing has happened, and then you look at Luke, and he says another thing has happened. They contradict one another." No, they don't contradict one another. They are independent accounts of one another. There is not one thing in Matthew that contradicts one thing in Luke, or one thing in Luke that contradicts one thing in Matthew. But, at the same time, you can't claim that Matthew was simply copying a story from Luke, or Luke was copying a story from Matthew, because the flow of the story is different.

Matthew tells you all about Joseph first hearing about this, presumably from Mary. And Joseph's reaction is to go off and think about divorce. And then an angel comes to him and speaks to him, and then he takes Mary back. And eventually Matthew has them down in Egypt. In Luke's story, the angel comes to Mary, tells her about it; she and Joseph are kept together, but then she ends up going off to be with Elizabeth for a number of months. Nothing in one story contradicts anything in the other story, but the stories complement one another perfectly in a way that only historians could have done who are diligently trying to find out exactly what happened. And Matthew somehow hears of the story of Joseph. Wouldn't you love to know how. And Luke, perhaps actually sits down with Mary, to find out about how she responded to this news. So there is no contradiction here; there's just a complementariness to these two accounts.

Finally, critics will say that the whole doctrine of the virgin birth is based on a misinterpretation. You see, these early Christians went back and they read Isaiah 17 and they mistranslated it because Isaiah 7:14 doesn't say: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive." In Hebrew it uses the word almah which can mean young maiden and it means that 'a young maiden will conceive.' However, the problem is that 250 years before Jesus lived, a group of Greek–speaking Jews translated the Old Testament into Greek. When they translated almah in Isaiah 7:14 from the Hebrew, they used the Greek word which means virgin. They could have used a word in Greek that meant young maiden. They didn't. They used the word that meant virgin, and when Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14, he uses that Greek word which means virgin. They weren't making this up. In fact, years before Christ, Rabbis had been expecting the Messiah to miraculously come into the world, precisely because of Isaiah 7:14. So the idea that this is an omission or contradiction or misinterpretation just won't float. The biblical testimony is for the virgin birth.

But there is an historical reason we believe the virgin birth too. If you look at the earliest Christianity–let's just take the first two centuries of the early Church–and start at the end of those two centuries, the late 190s, the end of the second century. You start with Irenaus in Gaul, or Tertullian in North Africa, and you begin to work back towards the beginning of the century until you get into the 90s and the early 100s with Ignacius of Antioch, and then on back into the New Testament writings themselves, you will find an unbroken chain of witness from early Christians all believing in the virgin birth. And you will not find one single orthodox Christian that questions the virgin birth.

Now, that doesn't mean it's true, of course; but it does mean is that is what they thought the Bible taught. So that you can be confident that you are not misreading the Bible because the first two centuries of Christians uniformly the closest to it believed in the virgin birth. Let me remind you, by the way, that when Irenaus in 190 AD is talking about the virgin birth, remember that he studied under a man from Smyrna named Polycarp, who studied under a man who was a pastor in Smyrna named John. Right. The John whose book we are studying on Sunday nights. That's just. Ireanaus is just one step removed from an author of the New Testament. And Irenaus is talking about the virgin birth. Now, there is no question that early Christians believed that Scripture taught this and that this is the way it was. So there is an historical reason to believe it.

But there is also a doctrinal reason to believe this. As we have already said, if a miracle is at the heart of Christianity, is it surprising that God would use a miracle to bring that miracle into the world? You see, the virgin birth explains how Jesus could be divine and human and sinless all at the same time. And that is what we have to have in order to be saved. We need a divine Savior, a human Savior, and a sinless Savior, in order to be saved. One human can't save us; there are billions of us. There are billions upon billions of sins to be forgiven. We need the infinite weight and glory and majesty of the person of God to forgive our sins. Our Savior needs to be divine.

But our Savior must be human too. We are human. We need someone like us with our flesh and our infirmities in order to have a mediator who can sympathize with us.

So we need a sinless human. We can't have a human who is in the same predicament as us; someone who is in the same boat as we are. We need someone outside to rescue us who is not in the same fix we are. And the virgin birth explains to you how we can have a divine, human, and sinless Savior all at once. Take out your hymnals and turn all the way to the back to page 871 and look up to the top of the page, to the left–hand column, to question 22 of The Larger Catechism. Some of you will remember this from memory. Question 22 says: "How did Christ, being the Son of God, become man?" The answer: "Christ, the Son of God, became man by taking to Himself a true body and a reasonable soul being conceived by the Holy Ghost in the womb of the virgin Mary and born of her yet without sin."

The Catechism says it more beautifully and comprehensively that I could: He's divine; He's human; He's sinless. So there's a doctrinal reason why we embrace the truth of the virgin birth.

III. The significance of the Virgin Birth and our belief in it.

So what? What's the significance of that to those of us who are true Christians? There's more significance than I have time to go into today, but let me suggest in outline seven things which are significant about the virgin birth.

First of all, your embrace of the virgin birth is significant for your embrace of the other miracles of the gospel. If you get suspicious about the virgin birth, what are you going to do with the other miracles of the gospel? Every time I run into someone who disbelieves the virgin birth, they also disbelieve the incarnation of Christ, which is a bigger problem. So our embrace of this glorious miracle is very important for our embrace of the rest of Scripture. If we deny this aspect of gospel history, then the whole account is called into question.

Secondly, the virgin birth is important because it is fulfillment of Old Covenant prophecy. Matthew tells us this explicitly in Matthew 1:22. He says that all this took place so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled. If the virgin birth doesn't happen, that Old Testament prophecy does not get fulfilled. And so the Rabbis, before the time of Christ, expected the Messiah to be born miraculously. Why? Because of Old Testament prophecy. And the virgin birth fulfills that prophecy.

Thirdly, the virgin birth is important because of its testimony of the Messiahship of Jesus. Turn with me to Luke 1:32, where the angel tells Mary who this boy that she will bear is going to be: "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; and He will reign over the House of Jacob forever, and His Kingdom will have no end." You see what Luke is saying. That angel said to Mary, "Your Son, Jesus, is the Messiah. He's the One that your people have been waiting for since Adam, since Noah, since Abraham, since Joseph, since David, since Jeremiah. He is the One that your people have been waiting for; He's the Messiah." So the virgin birth is a public marker. Look at this child, consider this child, consider who He is and realize who He is; He is Messiah.

Fourthly, the virgin birth is a testimony to the deity of Christ. The virgin birth helps us to understand that in the man, Jesus, we meet the divine Lord. It's not surprising that this child, virginally conceived, comes into the world and that Matthew can say that in Him was fulfilled the prophecy in Isaiah which said, "They shall call Immanuel" which translated means God with us. "He's the Son of the Most High," the angel says to Mary in Luke 1:32. That is not surprising and the virgin birth is a testimony to the fact that in the man Jesus we meet the divine Lord.

Fifthly, the virgin birth is a testimony to the humanity of Jesus Christ. The virgin birth demands that we take the humanity of Jesus seriously. He is not created out of some heavenly substance; He doesn't descend from heaven into this world and assume the appearance of a bodily form; He is created ex Maria. He is created out of the substance of Mary; He is fully and truly human. We have to take that humanity seriously.

The virgin birth is also a testimony to the sinlessness of Jesus. That is the sixth thing that we learn from the virgin birth. The virgin birth helps us to appreciate how Jesus was not fallen. We are fallen. We have a tendency to sin built in. Jesus was not; He was without sin. The virgin birth helps explain why.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the virgin birth is the platform for the fulfillment of the central promise of God in all of His covenant dealings with us. What was the one phrase used to summarize all of the hopes of the people of God for the promises that God had made to them in the Old Testament? Over and over you'll hear this phrase: "I will be Your God; you will be My people." And over and over you will hear this hope expressed that one day I will be Your God and you will be My people will be realized, and God will be with us.

Can you imagine the first Jews who heard Matthew read to them? He is Immanuel, God with us. Can you imagine the first Jews who heard the gospel of John read to them: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." And back in their minds they would go to the Exodus, and back in their minds they would go to the desire that God would be in their midst in the Tabernacle, and back they would go to all the preventatives that had to be done in order for the people of God to dwell with God in their midst in the Tabernacle. Then they hear announced that in this man, Jesus Christ, God has moved into their very midst in their fellowship.

Oh, my friends, the virgin birth tells you that when you see that man Jesus Christ, you are seeing God with you, and one day He will take all His people to be with Him forever and ever. May God grant that all of us, by faith, will meet again at that place and time.

Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, the only way that we can be there in that great reunion is if we believe on the Son for salvation as He is offered in the gospel. For those of us that do believe, grant that we would grow and persevere in that belief. For those of us here this day who do not believe in Jesus, the Savior and Lord, the sinless Son of God, grant them faith that they might trust in Him whom to no aright is life eternal. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

Ⓒ2013 First Presbyterian Church.

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