RPM, Volume 17, Number 43, October 18 to October 24, 2015

Jesus' Virgin Birth

Luke 2:5-7

By D. Marion Clark


The first grade Sunday School teacher had her students draw a picture of the nativity scene. She went around to each child admiring their artwork until she came to one little boy. He had all the characters of the story that she could more or less make out, except for one. There was a little figure dressed in brown standing next to Mary. Joseph was standing on the other side. "Who is that in your picture?" she asked. The little boy, somewhat surprised by the ignorance of his teacher, replied, "That's Brown John Virgin."

You will have trouble singing "Silent Night" now. There are many today who have trouble, not with Brown John, but with "yon virgin Mary."

The Text

5 He went there to register with Mary.

Joseph has taken Mary along with him to Bethlehem to register for the census. You might recall last week that our scholar I quoted from said that Luke made up the story of the census so that he could account for Jesus being born in Bethlehem. What we would say is that God came up with the census to get Jesus over to Bethlehem. It would have been simpler for Luke not to create a fictional census and trip to this town. But why was it important for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem? To fulfill prophecy. Listen to Micah 5:2:

2 "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times."

…who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

We know from Matthew 1:24 that Joseph and Mary actually had become legally married. Matthew then notes that they had no union until the child's birth. Luke uses one word ("pledged to be married") to describe the same relationship. Engagement was different in that society than it is in our modern society. When a couple becomes engaged, it is nothing more than a formal way of saying that they intend to get married. They are not bound to one another. That does not take place until the actual wedding ceremony. But in Joseph's and Mary's culture, engagement was as binding as marriage, so binding that a legal divorce was necessary to break it off. Luke's word is a shorthand way of saying that though Joseph and Mary did indeed have a wedding ceremony, their physical relationship was like that of an engaged couple. The marriage had not been consummated. Luke and Matthew both present to us the idea of the virgin birth of Jesus.

Now, to the actual birth. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.

Here is the first clear evidence that Luke was indeed a man and not a woman! Out of these twenty verses that make up the famous Christmas story of Jesus' birth, one Greek word is used to cover the labor — she gave birth. He is so like a guy! I can see his wife now asking him what he learned about Jesus' birth after getting having an interview with Mary. "Oh, well, you know…she gave birth."

It's not quite the same today, since the father gets to be with his wife as she delivers, but I am reminded of the "old days" when the father was banned from the room. When the doctor or nurse came out to inform him of being a father and he asked how things went, the answer would be, "Everything went fine. Mother and baby are doing well." It doesn't matter that mother went through eighteen hours of labor! But Mary gave birth to the Son of God. Surely, her labor would have gone smoothly, right ladies?

She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

This last sentence has led to a whole tradition of what Jesus' birth circumstance was like. Joseph and Mary arrive in a town overcrowded because of the census. Mary is having or on the verge of having labor pains. They get to an inn which, if it were modern, would have had a neon "No Vacancy" sign hanging in the window. The situation is desperate. Mary can't go on. The innkeeper sends them to the animal shelter where Mary gives birth that night. Thus Jesus' first bed is a manger, i.e. an animal's feeding trough.

That, quite probably, could have been the way the birth story actually happened. But we might not be reading Luke correctly. Luke (like a man!) doesn't say too much. The couple arrived in town, and then sometime while they were there — we actually don't know when, Mary gave birth. Was it the first night, the second, maybe a week later? We presume it was the first night because of what seems to be an emergency delivery.

Let me give you another scenario that is just as likely. The couple come to down and go, not to an inn, but to the home of relatives. Bethlehem is, after all, Joseph's hometown. The relatives, as would have been the case with just about all of the residents, are not well off and they have a home similar to many others. Instead of a house with an attached garage, they have one with an attached animal stall. What separates the stall from the other part of the house is a low stone wall which also serves as a feeding trough. Joseph and Mary are staying in the attached stall, because there is no room in the "kataluma."

"Kataluma" is the Greek word translated "inn." Luke uses that word one other time. It is in 22:11: and say to the owner of the house, 'The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?'Luke does tell the story of the good Samaritan who took a wounded man to an inn (10:34), but a different word is used then, indeed, the more common word for inn. Thus the young couple had to stay in the stall room of the house, because the guest room had already been taken.

Whatever the scenario, Luke's intention is not to present a degrading and hostile birth story, but nevertheless a humble and difficult one. His parents must travel because of the decree of a distant king. They inevitably endured scandal because of Mary's pregnancy, which may be way she accompanied her husband on the trip. Wherever it is the birth takes place, it is not in luxury accommodations, to say the least. The manger may have actually been a cozy place for Jesus, but it certainly is not the place for a royal child.


And yet it is this birth of this child that will change the world. That decree of a distant king is the result of a far earlier decree by the Great King of how and where his Son would be incarnated as an infant being. The humble circumstances were prepared, not because God couldn't make better arrangements, but because they were the best arrangements to make for his purpose. That purpose was to express the greater truth of how God's Son humbled himself. The Son of God emptied himself of the divine glory that he possessed in heaven. You and I consider how humble the circumstances were in which Jesus was born. He ought to have been born in a setting more fitting for a king. But, quite frankly, the mere act of becoming born as a human being was itself already a severe act of humility. Whether the birth takes place in a palace or a stall doesn't make much difference in comparison. If we could see what Jesus left behind, the incarnation alone would amaze us with what Jesus gave up.

None of us today are shocked by Jesus' humble beginnings. Indeed, they only make his birth more beautiful for us, as seen in our nativity scenes. And to us who believe the Bible to be true, the idea of the virgin birth seems right. We don't lose sleep wondering how that could be true. What the angel Gabriel told Mary makes sense to us: For nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37). Okay. The incarnation itself — the eternal God becoming a mortal man — is mind boggling enough; a virgin birth is not a more difficult miracle to imagine.

But the virgin birth is the one element of the Christmas story that rankles skeptics and many scholars. Virgin birth! Really! Belief in the virgin birth is obviously a matter of faith. No historical research can prove or disprove this particular part of the story. You would think, then, that at most the skeptical scholars would give it passing attention, perhaps say that it is a matter of faith and leave it at that. But they don't. I remember in a religion class at my university how my professor took a full class period attacking belief in the virgin birth and reserving another class period for discussion. (I learned to my own discomfort that he wasn't interested in discussion that actually questioned his conclusions.) No, they feel it necessary to put the virgin birth "in its place."

Consider this remark: "The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter" (Thomas Jefferson). Our third president was by no means a biblical scholar, but he did speak for skeptics who did not think an educated person could believe in any of the miraculous stories about Jesus.

Now where did this made up story come from? There are two lines of thought. One is that it came from an attempt to make Jesus more competitive with other heroes and religious figures. There were other stories circulating about mythological and legendary figures with elements similar to the miracle stories of Jesus, the early Christians came into contact with these stories and appropriated them, including the virgin birth, into the life of Jesus. This, of course, is pure speculation. It does not take into count how the New Testament, especially the Gospels, is steeped in Jewish perspective and tradition. If anything, the early church was intent on contrasting, not comparing, Jesus with pagan religious figures and ideas.

One thing to take into account. These other stories are about mythological figures or people who lived far in the past, so that there is no effort for them to be cast as historical stories. Matthew and Luke treat their stories as history. If not, they did a good enough job to make the early church believe them to be historical. But let's grant critical scholars the argument that these gospels were not written until the 80's or 90's A.D. You would have the equivalence of stories circulating today that Charles Lindberg was born of a virgin. Luke does not start off his gospel with "once upon a time." Luke writing of a man that his contemporaries knew indeed lived a relatively short time before.

The other more serious idea is that the Christian church thought up the virgin birth to make a faith statement about Jesus. The argument goes like this. The early Christians were blown away with the gospel. The power of Jesus' teachings and the stories about him made a life-changing impact on them. It only is reasonable that after a while special stories about his birth would surface. After all, they had already got the resurrection and other miracle stories, surely his birth ought to be miraculous as well. Now what would make his birth special? The pagan cultures have gods and maidens getting together. No, can't do that, but maybe a variation — a virgin birth. Is there anything, anything at all, they could find in the Scriptures to help them out? After studious work someone comes up with Isaiah 7:14. Matthew likes that and adds it in his gospel as a proof text for the virgin birth: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"—which means, "God with us."

(We are not going to study Matthew's interpretation of Isaiah 7:14. Some Christmas season, when I preach in Matthew, we will. I have actually preached on the Isaiah passage and will include the material as an addendum to the printed and electronic version of the sermon, for anyone interested in reading it. Suffice it to say now that I agree with conservative scholars that Matthew got the interpretation right.)

In other words, critics make the same argument about all the miraculous stories of Jesus and his teachings that proclaim him to be divine. It goes like this:

Christians had already decided that Jesus was God's chosen one. He already had "saving power" for them. They already believed in the significance of the Jesus who had taught and healed among them and then been crucified. What they then did was to project that faith in him backwards onto the time of his conception birth.

You get it? Jesus is special. Therefore we need stories that make him look special. How about…a resurrection. That would be neat. Well, if he is going to have a neat ending, he ought to have a neat beginning. Let's see…oh, how about a virgin birth. That would set him apart! It doesn't matter whether any of the stories are true or not, what matters is the meaning we give those stories. Well, yes, there are the simple people who are gullible enough to think the stories are true, but if that is what they need to believe in Jesus, well then the Lord bless them!

One of the big arguments that skeptics make is that these two accounts in Matthew and Luke are the only direct references in the New Testament to the virgin birth. Nowhere else is it taught or even used to teach any doctrine about Jesus. In other words, the story either was unknown in the early years of the church or at least discounted by the leaders. That seems like a good point, except that I know exactly how the skeptics would argue if the virgin birth was a major doctrine taught in the scriptures. Then they would say that because the virgin birth was so important to the early church's beliefs about Jesus, it was necessary for Matthew and Luke to give an account of it! You can't win!

We can take the same information and argue the opposite case. If indeed the virgin birth was not essential to the early church's teachings about Jesus and the gospel, why make it up? Why add a story that immediately raises skepticism about Jesus? The church was already having trouble getting the Gentiles to believe the resurrection; why toss in a virgin birth? Again, what we have are not two men who are merely good storytellers, but writers who have records they must account for.


Most scholars engaged in biblical studies, conservative or liberal, agree that there are limits to where historical, critical studies can take us in proving or disproving the gospel stories. The virgin birth is a prime example. All ancient history in particular is open to varying interpretations, and indeed, a scholar makes his mark in academia by presenting a new perspective about historical events. In the case of the Bible, one will take one of two approaches.

We've seen the approach of the skeptical scholar. That approach assumes that it is religious devotion which creates the stories that make Jesus divine. The challenge for the scholar is to get behind the religious baggage that has been tossed onto the historical Jesus and find out what he was really like. Virgin birth and miraculous healings and rising from the dead — these are but faith expressions to dress Jesus with and make him the Lord Jesus Christ that Christians now worship.

The other approach asks the question why people became Christians whose lives who turned around. Go back to the quote from the skeptical scholar: "Christians had already decided that Jesus was God's chosen one. He already had "saving power" for them. They already believed in the significance of the Jesus who had taught and healed among them and then been crucified."

Well…why had they decided that Jesus was God's chosen one? What was this "saving power" that had changed them? Is it not possible that because these stories are actually real stories about the real Son of God who rose from the dead and gave his followers the power of the Holy Spirit, is it not possible that their reality is what transformed a small band of frightened fishermen into the church that changed so many lives, it revolutionized the known world and became the greatest influence on the course of succeeding history?

Everybody wants to "get behind" to the greater truth. That's one reason why conspiracy theories are popular. What's really going on? Scholars want to get behind the Christ of faith to the Jesus of history. The new spiritual movement is an effort to get behind all the world religions to the ultimate reality.

The irony of it all is that if we were to get behind, we would find what had been in the front. There is no man behind the curtain pushing buttons and pulling levers. After all the scholastic studies and theological surmises, the truth behind the Christmas story is that Jesus Christ, God's only Son, was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.

Now again, I close as I did last Sunday. If this story is indeed true, what are you going to do about it? Because, if it is true then the rest of the story is true as well — that God's Son died for your sins to reconcile you with God and to call you to a life of living for him. Are you going to believe the story or not? The safe thing to do may be to keep Christmas a sweet story. Then you don't have to change. But if the story is true, the most dangerous thing for you to do is [to ignore it].

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