Last week we studied Matt. 1:1-17 which traces Jesus’ unique family-tree. Tonight we want to study what Matthew tells us about Jesus’ unique conception—read 1:18-25. Let’s get into this passage by asking 3 questions . . .
Many say this passage is a myth or legend rather than history. By “myth,” I mean a story that has been fabricated in order to explain (e.g., A.N.E. CREATION MYTHS) or entertain (e.g., PAUL BUNYAN) or to venerate someone (e.g., BUDDHA BIRTH MYTH: an elephant entered the left side of an Indian noble lady and turned into Buddha once inside her). By “history,” I mean an accurate account of an actual event. Like me, you may have heard that the biblical account of Jesus’ unique conception is a myth from college professors—or even from your pastor.1 But this account is very different from myth.2
First, myths are purposefully removed from history (usually in the distant past). This is because the point of myths was entertainment or moral reflection, not information. (By the way, historical fiction is a very recent genre.) But the accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth are lodged firmly in history—complete with genealogy, accurate chronological and geographical references, and eye-witness interviews (e.g., Mary by Luke). The authors are going out of their way to say, “This really happened! It was at this time and place, not long ago at all—and you can still talk to the people who witnessed it!”
Second, miracles are regarded as “normal” in myths (“NEVERLAND” IN “PETER PAN”). Precisely because myths were not about the “real world,” the human characters expected supernatural exploits and explanations. But Joseph certainly doesn’t react this way! Imagine Mary explaining to Joseph when she starts to show. If this was mythical, Joseph’s reaction would be “Oh, of course.” But instead Joseph reacts like any normal 1st-century (or 21st-century) fiancée (1:19). He knows how women get pregnant, and only an angelic visitation convinces him not to divorce her!
Third, while many claim that the New Testament account of Jesus’ birth is borrowed from the pagan/Greek mythical motif of a god having sex with a human woman and bearing a hybrid “super-hero” offspring (ZEUS > HERCULES; APOLLO > AESCLEPIUS), this account is very different from this motif in two ways:
Jesus’ conception was not the product of any sexual union (human or human-divine), but rather “by the Holy Spirit”—the Holy Spirit supernaturally conceived Jesus in Mary’s womb before she ever had sex. (Note that “until” in 1:25 implies what other passages confirm—that Joseph and Mary had normal sexual relations after Jesus’ birth which resulted in their own children. The issue is not that sex is bad, but that Jesus had no human father because he was miraculously conceived.)
1:23 tells us that the child born of Mary is not half human and half divine—but “God with us”—fully God and fully human. The Virgin Birth is actually the “B” miracle in this event; the “A” miracle is the Incarnation! This is what the Old Testament predicted (Isa. 9:6), and what the New Testament affirms (Jn. 1:1,14).
So the text claims that this account is history (not myth), and that God entered the human race through this unique and supernatural means. This raises another obvious question . . .
Did God (like the Greek gods) interrupt Joseph and Mary’s lives because he was bored, to make sport of us? No, the God of the Bible is not capricious; his actions in history are always purposeful and for our good. Matthew tells us two ways in which Jesus’ unique conception furthered God’s good plan for us.
He did it to notify us that Jesus was God’s promised Messiah. After narrating Jesus’ supernatural conception, Matthew tells us this event was the fulfillment of a prediction made by Isaiah to the house of David over 700 years earlier (re-read 1:22,23).
Last week, we saw that God had promised that one of David’s descendants would be his chosen Messiah. But how would Israel know which of those descendants was the promised One? One “sign” (miraculous attestation) would be that this Child would be born of a virgin—a greater sign than the miraculous births of previous key players (Isaac; Moses; Samuel).
This is one of dozens of predictions of what we call Jesus’ first coming. Not vague or cryptic predictions, but clear, detailed and preserved in writing hundreds of years beforehand so we can confirm their fulfillment. God doesn’t want us to be in the dark about who his Savior is, so he provided this unique way of identifying him. What are the odds of chance fulfillment of these predictions?
One statistician, Peter Stoner, conservatively estimates the odds of 8 of these predictions being fulfilled by chance at 1 in 1017. That’s a big number! Think of an area the size of Texas, covered 2 feet deep in silver dollars. What are the odds that a blindfolded man would select one marked silver dollar on the first attempt? The odds are 1 in 1017—and that’s just for 8 of them!3 Which takes more blind faith—to believe that Jesus fulfilled these predictions by chance, or to believe that he is God’s chosen Messiah? God does ask us to take a leap of faith (as we’ll see)—but a reasonable leap, not a blind leap!
He did it to provide salvation for the human race. Joseph is told in 1:21 to name the Child “Jesus” (“God Saves”) because he will save his people from their sins. This text implies that Jesus had to be born in this way in order to provide our salvation.4 In order to understand why this is so, we need to drop back first and understand the Bible’s view of salvation (it is not understood any longer in our culture).
According to the Bible, “salvation” is not realizing that we are already God—it is rescue from God’s judgment for our sins. Our need for salvation is rooted in the character of God.
God is totally righteous (morally perfect) and totally just (demands death as punishment for all violations of his character). Because we fall short of his perfect standard, we have true moral guilt and deserve his condemnation.
But God is also loving. This doesn’t mean that his love blots out his righteousness and justice, but that he cares about us so much that he provides a way to pay for our guilt so that he can accept us without compromising his moral character.
The heart of biblical theology (throughout the whole Bible) is the good news that God in his love provides a blameless substitute whose death pays for our guilt.
This is why animal sacrifice was central to Old Testament worship—not because God was hungry or could be bribed, but to instruct his people on the nature of their dilemma with God and his solution to this dilemma.
But clearly these animal sacrifices were just pictures of the real solution. Both logically and biblically, the real Substitute:
would have to be a member of the human race (Heb. 2:17). Animals can't represent human beings; they aren't even free-will moral agents (Heb. 10:4). Only a human being can take the place of human beings. would have to be a sinless human (Heb. 7:26,27). Otherwise, he could only pay for his own sins. would also have to be God (1 Tim. 4:10). If he were only a sinless man, he could only die for one other human being. But because he is also God, his death has infinite value—paying for all of the sins of all people at all time.
This is why the Old Testament itself predicted that One was coming—One who was fully human and fully God—whose death would pay for the sins of all humanity (read Isa. 53:5,6).
SUMMARIZE: Now when you think about it, there is only one way that such a Substitute could come into the world:
To be a member of the human race, he must be physically born into it through a human mother. Because of the biological continuity of the human race, if God created him from nothing (like Adam), he would be the head of a new race—not part of this race that needs salvation.
To be God, he can't have a human father, or he would be only human. So the mother would have to be human and the father would have to be God.
But since God doesn't have a physical body, this Person can't be conceived in the normal way. It would take God supernaturally conceiving this Person in a human mother's womb. And that is precisely what the virgin birth is!!
SUMMARIZE: The account of Jesus’ supernatural birth is real history, not myth. And it was necessary so that we could know that Jesus is the Messiah, and so that he could die for the guilt of our sins. So what? God calls on us to ask one final question . . .
The birth of Jesus is a historical issue—but it is more than that. It is also a theological issue—but it is more than that. It is a diagnosis and offer from God that requires a personal response.
Suppose you have a life-threatening illness that requires major surgery. You wouldn’t go to your neighbor (to save money) or just look in the Yellow Pages. You would look for a recommended surgeon and then check your surgeon’s credentials to ascertain that he has the skill and experience to perform your surgery. But finding a trustworthy surgeon alone would not help you, because apart from your permission he can do nothing. You would have to make the decision to personally entrust yourself to him to save you through this surgery. You would have to sign the permission form and allow them to wheel you into the operating room and anesthetize you. When you come out of that surgery and regain your health, you would know two things: the surgeon saved your life (not you), and your decision to entrust yourself to him was very significant!
God says it is exactly this way with you spiritually. He says you have guilt before him that is spiritually lethal—so lethal that only the death of his Son can remove it. He provides you with ample evidence to know that Jesus is his Son, and that he is ready and willing to perform this operation. But you can know and mentally agree to all this—and still die in your sins. Unless you personally entrust yourself to him to remove the cancer of your guilt, he will be of no benefit to you. It’s your move!
1For example: “This passage tells us that Jesus was born by the action of the Holy Spirit. It tells us of what we call the Virgin Birth. The Virgin Birth is a doctrine which presents us with many difficulties; and it is a doctrine which our Church does not compel us to accept in the literal and physical sense. This is one of those doctrines on which the Church says that we have full liberty to come to our own belief and our own conclusion . . . If we come to this passage with fresh eyes . . . we will find that the fact which is stresses is not so much that Jesus was born of a woman who was a virgin, as that the birth of Jesus is the work of the Holy Spirit.” William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), p. 10.
2 Dr. Thomas Thorburn comments appropriately: “All these various stories of supernatural conceptions and births, which we meet with in folklore and the history of mythology, have this one point in common -they serve to point not so much to the similarity as to the complete contrast and dissimilarity which exists between the Christian birth story and the tales which are current in various pagan circles.” “A Ready Defense” 78/158
3 Cited in Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino: Here’s Life Publishers, 1979), p. 167. Stoner calculates the odds of chance fulfillment of 48 Old Testament Messianic prophecies at 1 in 10157.
4 “The Virgin Birth might well be described as an essential, historical indication of the Incarnation, bearing not only the analogy to the divine and human natures of the Incarnate, but also bringing out the nature, purpose, and bearing of this work of God to salvation.” C. H. Henry, “Our Lord’s Virgin Birth,” Christianity Today, December 7, 1959.
Copyright 2003 Gary DeLashmutt