How Important is the Virgin Birth?

Rev. Tony Cooke

“A virgin birth seems a most appropriate and creative way for God to enter His world.”
– Paul Smith

The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are central to God redeeming us back to himself, but those epic events were preceded by the virgin birth and the Incarnation. Being conceived in the womb of Mary by the Holy Spirit, the eternal Son of God received a human body—was made flesh—and escaped the sin nature that had plagued the human race since the fall of man. Thus, Jesus was uniquely qualified to be our Savior and Redeemer.

Hebrews 2:14-15 (NLT)
14 Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death.
15 Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.

In writing recently about the Deity of Jesus Christ, I referenced John 1:14 (NKJV), “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” So just how did the Word, who pre-existed with God and was himself God, become flesh? The bold answer from the Bible is that “the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’)” (Isaiah 7:14 NLT).

Isaiah’s prophecy, given around 700 years before the birth of Christ, was not the first indication of a special offspring of a woman. In Genesis 3:15, immediately after the fall of man, God informs the serpent about the future work of the Seed of a woman:

“And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel.”
— Genesis 3:15 (NKJV)

The Seed of Woman—and we believe this to be a prophetic description of Jesus—would be the one who would bring complete destruction to the kingdom of darkness, just as the serpent had brought great harm to the human race. This promise of the triumph of the “Seed of woman” has long been called the “protoevangelium,” the first gospel.

When Charles Wesley penned his magnificent hymn, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” he recognized Christ as the Seed of woman in the lyric, “Rise the woman’s conquering Seed, Bruise in us the serpent’s head.” Not only does Paul refer to Christ as “the Seed” in the book of Galatians (3:16; 19), but John writes, “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8 NKJV).

As we come to the Gospel accounts, we see that the New Testament technically teaches the virgin “conception” of Jesus by the Holy Spirit, but since most people refer to the virgin birth, we will stay with that terminology. Matthew 1:18-25 (NKJV) gives a brief account of Jesus’ birth and says that Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that Joseph and Mary had not come together before this conception and that he “did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son” (Matthew 1:25 NKJV).

Luke’s account is the most detailed account, and he no doubt received the particulars by interviewing Mary herself—discussing the events of Jesus’ life with witnesses is how Luke compiled his Gospel. After all of the staggering events that led up to and followed Jesus’ birth, Luke writes, “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (2:19 NKJV).

When Luke interviewed Mary, is it possible that he heard certain details from the lips of Mary that she had never shared before? Precious truths that she had been treasuring in her heart those many years? We don’t know for sure, but we still marvel at the extensive richness of Luke’s account of Jesus’ conception and birth (Luke 1:26-2:21).

Perhaps the most pointed statement of all is when the angel explained to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35 NLT).

Scripture clearly teaches that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born in Bethlehem, and later anointed by the Holy Spirit for ministry. It is also possible that during his earthly life, there were rumors about the unusual nature of his birth, and people who only thought naturally could have come to horribly wrong conclusions.

In a heated exchange with the Pharisees (John 8), they asked Jesus questions about his identity and that of his father. They became quite testy with him as they defended their Abrahamic lineage, and then they made what could be a very snide remark to Jesus, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father—God” (John 8:41 NKJV).

Noted commentator, William Barclay says of this verse:

“It is certainly true in later times that the Jews spread abroad a most malicious slander against Jesus. The Christians very early preached the miraculous birth of Jesus. The Jews put it about that Mary had been unfaithful to Joseph; that her paramour had been a Roman soldier called Panthera; and that Jesus was the child of that adulterous union. It is just possible that the Jews were flinging at Jesus even then an insult over his birth, as if to say: “What right have you to speak to the like of us as you do?”[1]

If Barclay’s assessment is accurate, it not only proves how crass the religious people were to make such an insinuation, but it also indicates that perhaps false rumors had been circulating about the unique nature and timing of Jesus’ birth for some time.

As a believer, I embrace the plain teaching of Scripture and of the Apostles’ Creed regarding Jesus, “Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”

The apostle Paul comments, “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5 NKJV). Later, he quoted an early Christian hymn or creed when he tells Timothy about the great mystery of godliness:

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,       
taken up in glory.
— Timothy 3:16 (ESV)

Jesus’ conception was anything but the norm. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary without a natural, biological father. He was “born of a woman” and was “manifested in the flesh.”

There are also many powerful voices from church history, especially shortly after the apostolic era, that testify of the virgin birth.

“He was truly born of a virgin… He is God existing in flesh, true Life in death. He is both of Mary and of God.”
— Ignatius of Antioch (?–117)

“We even affirm that He was born of a virgin.”
— Justin Martyr (100–165)

“Christ Jesus, the Son of God, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, humbled Himself to be born of the virgin. Thereby, He united man through Himself to God.”
— Irenaeus (125–202)

“The Son of God—He who made the universe—assumed flesh and was conceived in the virgin’s womb.”
— Clement of Alexandria (150–215)

“This ray of God, then, as it was always foretold in ancient times, descended into a certain virgin. And He was made flesh in her womb. So, in His birth, God and man were united.”
— Tertullian (160–220)

“He in the last times divested Himself and became a man, and was incarnate although still God. While He was made a man, He remained the God that He was. He assumed a body like our own, differing in only one respect: that the body was born of a virgin and of the Holy Spirit. This Jesus Christ was truly born, truly suffered, . . . and truly died.”
— Origen (184–253)

“He enters into a virgin. Through the Holy Spirit, He is clothed with flesh. God is mingled with man.”
— Cyprian (210–258)

“I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord.”
— Martin Luther (1483–1546)

“The Son of God did not want to be seen and found in heaven. Therefore he descended from heaven into this humility and came to us in our flesh, laid himself into the womb of his mother and into the manger and went on to the cross. This was the ladder that he placed on earth so that we might ascend to God on it. This is the way you must take.”
— Martin Luther (1483 – 1546)

“For, first, the birth of Christ was the incarnation of God: it was God taking upon himself human—a mystery, a wondrous mystery, to be believed in rather than to be defined.”
— Charles H. Spurgeon (1834 – 1892)

“Some things strange and tragic have been happening in recent years within Christianity. For one, some ministers have advised their congregations not to be greatly concerned if theologians dispute the virgin birth of Jesus. The issue, they say, is not important. For another thing, some professing Christians are saying they do not want to be pinned down as to what they really believe about the uniqueness and reality of the deity of Jesus, the Christ.”
— A. W. Tozer (1897 – 1963)

“If we accept that Jesus was the incarnate Son of God, does not belief in the virgin birth become logically inevitable? Who could be the Father of the Son of God but God Himself?”
Oswald Sanders (1902 – 1992)

“What we celebrate at Christmas is not so much the birth of a baby, but the incarnation of God Himself.”
— R. C. Sproul (1939 – 2017)

“The virgin birth of Christ is a key doctrine; for if Jesus Christ is not God come in sinless human flesh, then we have no Savior. Jesus had to be born of a virgin, apart from human generation, because He existed before His mother. He was not just born in this world; He came down from heaven into the world. Jesus was sent by the Father and therefore came into the world having a human mother but not a human father.”
— Warren Wiersbe (1929 – 2019)

“Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35), and not by Joseph, in order that His human nature might be sinless. This is why He would be called ‘the Son of God’ at His birth.”
— Tony Evans (1949–)

“The Virgin Birth alone insured both the full deity and full humanity of Jesus. If God had created Jesus a complete human being in heaven and sent Him to earth apart from any human parent, it is difficult to see how He could be truly a man. If God had sent His Son into the world through both a human father and mother, it is difficult to see how He could be truly God.”
— Sam Storms (1951–)

“The omnipotent, in one instant, made himself breakable. He who had been spirit became pierceable. He who was larger than the universe became an embryo.”
— Max Lucado (1955–)

Had Jesus not been miraculously conceived of the Holy Spirit, he would not have been qualified to be our Savior. To represent God in the work of redemption, he had to be fully God. To represent man in the same transaction, he had to be fully man. This is what the virgin birth made possible.

There will certainly be people who simply accepted Jesus—put their faith in him—without ever hearing detailed doctrine about the virgin birth, and they no doubt were born again when they heard about Jesus dying on the cross for their sins and being raised from the dead. In that sense, a person doesn’t have to believe in the virgin birth in order to be saved. However, had Jesus not been born of a virgin, nothing he did could have produced our salvation. A regular, sinful man could not effectively die on behalf of others.

I appreciate the brilliant insight reflected in Oswald Sanders’ statement:

“It is conceded that the Bible does not demand belief in the virgin birth as a prerequisite for salvation, but it does indicate that the fact of the virgin birth must be true if we are to be saved. It is possible for a man to be saved without knowing details of the process, just as babies are born without any knowledge of embryology. It is the integrity of the fact, not our knowledge of it, that lays the basis for our salvation.”[2]

Someone who rejects the supernatural claims of the Bible will not only reject the virgin birth, but they will also reject the resurrection of Christ and all the miracles of the Bible. The truth is that the Christian faith is a supernatural faith. Jesus physically entered the earth through a supernatural act (the virgin birth), and he left the earth through another supernatural act (the ascension).

To truly celebrate Christ, we must embrace the fact that God has supernaturally intervened on our behalf to do everything that was necessary to rescue us from the grip of sin and death. This involved God the Son being born of a virgin and Jesus being raised from the dead after he had died for our sins. This is what the Bible teaches. This is what I believe.

[1] William Barclay, ed., The Gospel of John, Volume 2, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975), 28.
[2] J. Oswald Sanders, The Incomparable Christ: The Person and Work of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), 15-16.