Promises Made and Kept
I came across some pretty cynical but amusing views of Christmas expressed by two popular writers. The first is from Katharine Whitehorn, a British journalist who died in January of this year. She wrote, “From a commercial point of view, if Christmas did not exist it would be necessary to invent it.” Understanding how Christmas gives the worldwide economy a needed jolt at the end of the year, I suspect this is so.
The second comes from Garrison Keillor who became famous in Minnesota, of all places. He wrote, “A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.” Not a flattering view, but true.
People take a similarly cynical view of Jesus being born to a virgin. Some people are surprisingly eager to disavow everything miraculous in the Bible, including the Virgin Birth. I don’t understand why people with that attitude want to have anything to do with the Bible at all - we’d both be better off if they left it alone and wandered off to find some more sensible way to prove how their brain is as big as they claim.
Here’s the doctrine in a nutshell: God promised to send a man who would redeem His people. He said one way you would know who the Redeemer is was by His miraculous birth. Alone among all the men born of woman, this one would have no human father. His birth would defy the usual rules of progeny.
The Messiah would be known by His miraculous birth; Jesus was born to a virgin - Mary.
1. The promise: the Messiah would be born to a virgin woman.
Utilizing the context, let’s see what this prophecy meant to Isaiah’s original hearers. The situation in Judah was tense: Isaiah 7:2 says THE HEARTS OF THE KING AND HIS PEOPLE TREMBLED WITH FEAR, LIKE TREES SHAKING IN A STORM.
King Ahaz had refused to join a coalition of nations who had banded together to oppose the Assyrian Empire which threatened to come and destroy them all. To make matters worse, he had appealed to the emperor of Assyria to come and rescue Judah from the coalition, thus allying himself with their enemy.
The kings of the coalition hadn’t taken his refusal lightly; they vowed to kill Ahaz and put a king on the throne of Judah who would join the coalition. At God’s direction, Isaiah met with the king to deliver a message of hope: the coalition would not attack Judah. Ahaz’s life was in no danger.
Sometime later, Isaiah went back to the king and demanded Ahaz ask the Lord for a sign to confirm his earlier promise of deliverance. Ahaz was told to make the sign as difficult to perform as possible, the more miraculous the better (11). Ahaz was not a believer, and in a false show of piety, he refused to name a test, saying, “NO, I WILL NOT TEST THE LORD LIKE THAT.” (12) Isaiah condemned the king as trying God’s patience (13). He went ahead and gave the king a sign anyway, the virgin-born son of verse fourteen.
We don’t know of any virgin birth other than Jesus’ that might have been a fulfillment of the prophecy, so we have to ask how a virgin birth that occurred more than 700 years after the prophecy would have any meaning for Ahaz and the people of Judah. The point, as far as Ahaz was concerned, had more to do with the boy’s age than his origin. Before the child reached the age of maturity, the kings of the coalition that Ahaz feared so much would no longer exist. The Assyrians will conquer them in 12 years or less. Ahaz would not have to wait forever for his deliverance.
A closer look at the sign reveals two points of focus. One, the mother will be a woman not expected to be pregnant. People make a huge issue out of the variant translation of a Hebrew word, almah. The variant translation is “young woman.” Their objection is that “young woman” is more typical translation. Some charge Christians with having mistranslated the translation to suit their theology.
My answer to the charge is to point out that a child born to a young woman isn’t a miraculous event. Sorry to say, in our culture it has become commonplace. Remember, Isaiah ordered Ahaz to ask God for a SIGN OF CONFIRMATION, a great big miracle that would prove God was in this. A young woman having a baby is an ordinary thing. A virgin having a baby, that’s different. A once-in-all-history level miracle.
Also, His name indicated His mission; Immanuel would show God’s people He was with them. This is a message that has obviously value to people who were under siege.
Let’s carry this lesson forward and determine what it means to us. I deny that Christians are misrepresenting this text. Even if that could be proven beyond a doubt, we don’t really need Isaiah 7:14 as proof, we have all the proof we need in the gospels.
It has been the position of the Church throughout the ages that Jesus’ birth was miraculous. This is an obvious teaching of the New Testament. So we claim it and those who want to dispute the connection are entitled to their opinion.
2. The fulfillment: Jesus was born to the virgin Mary.
In Luke 1:26-38 Luke tells us HOW the virgin Birth happened; Matthew tells us only that it happened. After the miraculous conception of John the Baptist (1:5-25), we are introduced to a greater miracle, a virgin conception (31)!
After Gabriel explains how God showed favor to Mary (32-33), she naturally asked how she, being a virgin, will give birth to a son (34). Gabriel’s answer is in three parts.
One, the Holy Spirit will accomplish this miracle (35). The word OVERSHADOW is used in the Bible to refer to the protective presence of God. This is a tender and intimate word. It offers no biological explanations, but it does give us a satisfactory spiritual explanation of what happened. The reason for this miracle is so that the baby she births will be HOLY, the SON OF GOD.
Two, as a proof of God’s power, Mary’s own RELATIVE is pregnant (36). No one thought she would ever have a baby! Mary’s pregnancy will be even more miraculous because - unlike Elizabeth’s pregnancy - this child was conceived without the assistance of a man.
Three, this pregnancy is a sure thing; Mary can trust God to have the power to carry out what nature would not allow. A virgin conception was not only possible, but eventual; FOR THE WORD OF GOD WILL NEVER FAIL.
Convinced, Mary opted for obedience and accepted God’s command. For this reason, Mary is a suitable example of faithful discipleship.
Where Luke’s account centers on Mary, Matthew’s centers on Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25). Having just established (16) that Joseph was Mary’s husband and Mary Jesus’ mother, Matthew goes on to explain how Joseph and Mary came to be married.
Twice in the course of this explanation (18+20), Joseph is told the child within Mary is a product of Mary’s faithfulness to God, not her unfaithfulness to him. Verse eighteen = WHILE SHE WAS STILL A VIRGIN, SHE BECAME PREGNANT THROUGH THE POWER OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. Verse twenty = “THE CHILD WITHIN HER IS CONCEIVED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT.” The angel also informed Joseph of the importance of this baby: “HE WILL SAVE HIS PEOPLE FROM THEIR SINS.”
The angel went on to quote Isaiah 7:14 to Joseph, which supplies the connection between these two passages (22). This quotation makes it clear to Joseph that there’s much more at stake here than one young couple: this baby’s birth with be an historical event. By means of his obedience and abstinence, Joseph established the Virgin Birth as a historical fact (24-25).
The Messiah would be known by His miraculous birth; Jesus was born to a virgin - Mary.
There are two primary reasons the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is so important. It is a an aspect of our faith on which we must not compromise. It is a partial explanation of the sovereign and sinless nature of Jesus Christ.
Regarding the sovereign nature of Christ, I am referring to the divine side of Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God. As such, He is God. But Jesus is at the same time fully human. It’s easy for us to understand how someone born of a woman can be human, as every one of us is. Both human and divine natures existed at the same time in the person of Jesus Christ, and that is more difficult to explain.
Regarding the sinless nature of Christ, the New Testament makes it very clear that Jesus was sinless. The sinless nature of Christ is a necessity for our salvation. If Jesus is not God and man, He cannot be our Savior.
The Bible is clear that Jesus offered His human life as a sacrifice for sin (for example, Hebrews 2:14; Colossians 2:9; Romans 8:3). Only by His death on the cross can we find lasting forgiveness for our sins.
The Old Testament Law God required two things from every animal sacrificed for sins; that the animal be perfect (without illness or injury that would normally devalue the animal) and that its blood be shed. In a human sacrifice, the equivalent would be a sinless, morally perfect person. Such a person could only exist as God within a human being.
To be a sacrifice that would end all sacrifices, the life being offered must have fully divine and fully human natures. If Jesus is God pretending to be man or man pretending to be God, we are not saved. That’s how serious this doctrine is. That’s why the Apostle John made this THE test of true faith in 1 John 4:2-3.
There is much more that could be said on the subject of the Virgin Birth, and indeed much has been said. What’s essential for us to remember is that Advent is a celebration of salvation. Without Christmas there is no Easter. The Virgin Birth establishes the divine and human nature of Jesus Christ. We must hold fast to this traditional doctrine as if our lives depended on it, for that is exactly he case.
Roundabout, “The Office Party,” Katharine Whitehorn
Leaving Home, “Exiles,” Garrison Keillor