An ancient Christmas: The virgin
The prophet Isaiah ministered in Judah around six hundred years before Christ. His ministry spanned the reigns of at least four Judean kings: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Three of those kings were godly, but Ahaz was a particularly despicable character.
Second Kings 16 gives us some insight into Ahaz’s character. We are told there that “he did not do what was right in the eyes of the LORD his God.” Instead, “he walked in the way of the kings of Israel,” so much so that “he even burned his son as an offering according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.” Furthermore, “he sacrificed and made offerings on the high places and on the hills and under every green tree” (vv. 1–4). This was a man wholly given to idolatry.
When the kings of Syria and Israel waged war against Jerusalem, Ahaz made a treaty with the Assyrians, trusting in them to deliver him and Judah from the invading forces. God was displeased with this treaty and warned Ahaz against it, but the king would not listen. This is the background to Isaiah 7.
The chapter opens with the initial invasion of the Syrians and the Israelites having failed, but they quickly redoubled their efforts and committed to attacking afresh. God sent Isaiah to assure Ahaz that his enemies would not triumph. Isaiah urged the king to take God’s words to heart: “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all” (v. 9). In other words, “If you can’t trust God’s promise, what can you trust?” Wanting to make his word sure, God invited—indeed, commanded—Ahaz to ask for a sign: “Let it be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven” (v. 11). In a show of feigned piety, Ahaz refused: “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test” (v. 12). This may sound good on one level, but God had told him to ask for a sign. Piety was not at the heart of Ahaz’s refusal; an unwillingness to submit to God’s messenger was. Ahaz felt that he did not need God’s signs delivered by God’s messengers, but the aid of Assyria.
Wearied with Ahaz’s impiety, God promised a sign anyway: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel” (v. 14). These famous words are quoted in the New Testament and applied directly to the virgin birth of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:23).
Some years ago, a particular English translation of the Bible raised the ire of evangelicals and Catholics alike when, translating v. 14, it opted to render the Hebrew word almah (“virgin”) as “young woman.” This particular translation was decried as liberal for supposedly denying the virgin birth of Christ—even though the same translation translated Matthew 1:23 using the word “virgin.” But there is, in fact, some controversy surrounding the Hebrew word.
A good argument can be made that the initial fulfilment of the prophecy lay in the more immediate future. God told Ahaz to ask for a sign, which he would witness, that God would grant victory against Syria and Israel. The birth of Jesus, some six hundred years later, hardly seems like an appropriate sign. Speaking of the son to be born of the almah, God says, “For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted” (v. 16). Clearly, the prophesied boy would be born while Syria and Israel were still a threat to Ahaz. By the time Jesus was born, that threat was long past, and Ahaz was no longer alive to witness the fulfilment of the prophecy.
The notion must at least be entertained that the immediate fulfilment of this prophecy lay in the birth of a son to a young woman, not a virgin, in Ahaz’s own time. Perhaps Isaiah’s own son, Mahershalalhashbaz, whose birth is recorded in the opening verses of chapter 8, was the sign to Ahaz.
Importantly, this in no way detracts from the virgin birth of Christ. The Holy Spirit clearly guided Matthew under inspiration to apply Isaiah 7:14 to the birth of Jesus. And the Greek word used there unequivocally means “virgin.”
Laying aside for the moment the debate surrounding the proper translation of almah, let’s consider the text as it applies to Jesus. When Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy, he immediately, and understandably, assumed that she had been unfaithful. As he contemplated the most discreet way to divorce her, an angel appeared to him with these words: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew then adds this commentary: “All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel’” (Matthew 1:20–23). Once again, the Greek word here translated “virgin” only and always speaks of a virgin.
The controversial translation choice of the aforementioned English Bible was controversial because the doctrine of the virgin birth is controversial. Sceptics decry the notion of a virgin birth as completely fallacious. It is impossible for a virgin to conceive, they argue. And yet the Bible tells us quite plainly that Mary did conceive, and give birth, as a virgin. The question to be asked is, how important is the doctrine of the virgin birth to historic Christianity? Its significance is at least fourfold.
First, it is significant because it shows that his birth was supernatural. Right from the outset, Jesus’ life was shown to be one of supernatural significance. The story of Jesus of Nazareth commenced with a supernatural birth and concluded with a supernatural resurrection and ascension. As Donald Macleod notes, “The virgin birth is … blatantly supernatural, defying our rationalism, informing us that all that follows belongs to the same order as itself and that if we find offence there is no point in proceeding further.”1
Second, it is significant because it shows that humanity can’t redeem itself. The human race was infected by sin. The sin nature, it seems, is passed from father to children; Jesus was therefore born without a sin nature because he had no biological human father. This made him uniquely qualified to serve as humanity’s Saviour.
Third, it is significant because it displays God’s initiative. Mary did not plan to bear the Messiah, and she was not asked whether she was willing to do so. She submitted, to be sure (Luke 1:38), but God had already decreed that the Saviour would be conceived in and born from her. God was determined to save his people from his sins (Matthew 1:21) and he took the initiative to do so.
Fourth, the virgin birth highlights the dual nature of Jesus. He was fully divine, conceived by the Holy Spirit and not by means of ordinary human intercourse. At the same time, he was fully human, born of a woman. Wayne Grudem captures it well:
God, in his wisdom, ordained a combination of human and divine influence in the birth of Christ, so that his full humanity would be evident to us from the fact of his ordinary human birth from a human mother, and his full deity would be evident from the fact of his conception in Mary’s womb by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit.2
In short, the virgin birth of Christ proved that he was uniquely qualified to be the one who would save his people from their sins.