December 2008 Issue
~ Born of a Woman
by Roger S. (Sing) Oldham
But when the completion of the
time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law.
- Galatians 4:4
In every generation, the virgin birth of Jesus comes under
attack, both from those within and those without the church. At
the dawn of the 19th century (1799), Friedrich Schleiermacher,
trying to make Christianity palatable to its "cultured despisers,"
placed belief in the virgin birth and the resurrection on the
same level, holding that one need not believe either to still
have "faith."1 A century later,
in 1892, German Lutheran pastor Christopher Schrempf refused to
use the Apostle's Creed in baptism because of his disbelief in
the virgin birth.2 When a group of his
followers consulted with Adolf Harnack, Harnack affirmed Schrempf's
discrediting of the Apostles Creed by attacking its historicity.3
Fast forward another hundred years. The twentieth century closed
with John Spong, an Episcopal bishop, dismissing the virgin birth
of Jesus in his small book, Born of a Woman.4
Interspersed between these have been the "quests" for
the historical Jesus, Bultmann's radical "demythologizing"
of the Gospels, process theology, open theism, and the Jesus project.
Each, in its own way, has sought to minimize the significance
and importance of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. In response,
I submit five reasons why the virgin birth is a doctrine we can
count on five reasons it makes sense to believe the Word
of God on this matter. These insights are not unique to me, for
these are the truths woven throughout any consistent Bible-based
The Virgin Birth Considered
Knowing about and believing in the virgin birth is not essential
for a person to have a true conversion experience. Many people,
hearing the powerful message of the Cross, have repented and believed
unto salvation without ever having read the Gospel accounts of
the supernatural conception of Jesus. However, once a believer
learns of the virgin birth, it all makes sense! If our saving
God is able to impute our sins to Jesus on the Cross, raise Jesus
from the dead, and impute His righteousness to all who believe,
it is a small thing for Him to overshadow a peasant girl in Palestine
and perform a miracle of conception. Not to believe in this miracle
may indicate a basic worldview at odds with the miraculous in
general. If we disbelieve a supernatural birth, will disbelief
in a supernatural atonement, a supernatural resurrection, and
a supernatural conversion be far behind? The history of Christian
thought demonstrates that this is indeed a slippery slope.
The Virgin Birth Considered
The reaction of both Mary and Joseph was one of stunned astonishment.
Theirs was not the reaction of exposed guiltiness. They both knew
that they had maintained a lifestyle of moral and sexual purity.
Their relationship was one of honor and integrity toward each
other and toward others. Both Matthew and Luke indicate the absolute
incredulity Mary and Joseph expressed upon learning of Mary's
pregnancy. Their responses to this news point to the factual nature
of the narrative and of the teaching.
The Virgin Birth Considered
When the angel told Mary for nothing will be impossible
with God (Luke 1:37), the angel reflected a biblical worldview
that is contrary to the naturalism of the modern era. One of the
amazing oddities of the last two
hundred years of Christian thought is the widespread prevalence
of writers who claim to affirm some kind of "faith"
even while denying God's supernatural ability to do the unexplained
and the unexpected. A simple exercise in logic may be stated this
way: either God is able to do the otherwise unobserved
and unexperienced (a biblical worldview); or God has limited Himself
to do only that which humans have uniformly observed throughout
history (a naturalistic worldview). If we accept the corollary
truths that God exists and that God can do whatever He chooses
to do, it is no more difficult to believe the first premise stated
above than to believe the second. Can God perform a miracle
of virgin birth? If He is God, He can. Did God perform
a miracle of virgin birth? Let's hear the Scripture speak.
The Virgin Birth Considered
While there are only two biblical passages which explicitly
teach the doctrine of the virgin birth (Matthew 1:16-25 and Luke
1:26-38), numerous other passages of Scripture attest to its significance
An Old Testament Prediction
In Isaiah 7:14, the prophet predicted a supernatural sign to
the unbelieving Ahaz. Ahaz, a descendant of David, was king of
Judah. He was a wicked king, one who did not walk after the ways
of David. When Judah was besieged by two powerful enemies, Rezin
of Syria and Pekah of Israel, Ahaz was about to seek an alliance
with Assyria to come to his defense. The prophet Isaiah confronted
him, calling on him to put his trust in the LORD for deliverance.
Ahaz refused to acknowledge the LORD. In fact, he shut the doors
of the temple, made himself altars on every street corner in Jerusalem,
and systematically demonstrated his utter rejection of the LORD.6
Isaiah pronounced a sign to Ahaz. The LORD would remain faithful
to His covenant with David in spite of Ahaz's rebellious response
to Him. In the prophetic vision, Isaiah saw three future realities.
One, an 'almah (Hebrew word translated "virgin")
would bear a son who would be God with us. This child would
be the fulfillment of the LORD's messianic promise to David. Therefore,
Ahaz's thinking was wrong-headed to imagine that his enemies could
prevail against the anointed people of God through whom the promised
Messiah must come. Two, Isaiah, seeing that future birth as if
it were a present reality, predicted that before such a son would
reach the age of knowing right from wrong (a period of about three
years), the two kings in question would have unsuccessfully concluded
their invasion and returned to their homes. Three, the prophet
saw that the very ones Ahaz sought to lean upon the Assyrians
would become an agent of harassment against the people
of God for generations to come.7
Commentators differ on the son to be born, whether Isaiah's
son, a son of the line of David, or a future messianic son. They
also differ on whether the term 'almah was a prediction of a virgin
giving birth in the distant future or a young woman living at
the present time who would conceive a son that would serve as
a visible reminder to Ahaz of the LORD's promise.8
Regardless, it is interesting that the word 'almah was
the term used in this inspired text. While the related word bethula
was a "more precise term relative to virginity" than
'almah,9 it was the latter term
used in Isaiah's prophecy.
'Almah only occurs seven times in the Old Testament.
Alan Macrae in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament
observed that, though the term 'almah is "not a technical
word for 'virgin,'" in its contexts (Genesis 24:3; Exodus
2:8; Psalm 68:25,26; Song of Solomon 1:3 and 6:8; Proverbs 30:19;
and here) it "represents a young woman, one of whose characteristics
is virginity."10 It is clear that
the use of 'almah in Isaiah 7:14 was a divinely-appointed
word. It allowed for the fulfillment of the sign in Ahaz's own
lifetime of a young woman who had not yet been married to give
birth to a son, while also allowing for a future messianic fulfillment
when a virgin would conceive and bear a son.
The Gospel Declarations
Matthew's Gospel introduces three lines of evidence in the
first chapter to point to the virgin birth of Jesus. First, as
Matthew concluded his genealogical summary of Jesus, he made a
grammatical distinction that is significant. In the first three
references to women in the genealogy, the Scripture states that
the man bore his son literally "out from" his wife
Salmon begat Boaz of Rachab; Boaz begat Obed of Ruth; David begat
Solomon of the one who had been Uriah's. However, when Matthew
mentioned the birth of Jesus, naming the fourth woman mentioned
in the genealogy, he used a different grammatical expression.
The KJV text reads this way: Jacob begat Joseph, the husband
of Mary, of whom (the Greek hes, which is feminine)
was born Jesus who is called Christ. Jesus is not listed
as Joseph's son, but Mary's.
Second, Joseph's surprise at Mary's pregnancy cannot be overlooked.
Upon hearing that Mary was pregnant, Joseph's first reaction was
a sense of betrayal. He knew the child was not his. His surprise
points to the nature of their courtship one of purity.
Third, when Matthew translated the prophetic reference of Isaiah
7:14 (Matthew 1:23), he used parthenos ("virgin"),
a very specific word to translate the more general word 'almah.
Matthew was not alone in this rendering of the term. The translators
of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures
translated in stages during the centuries leading up to the birth
of Jesus, also chose to use parthenos to translate 'almah
in this passage. The messianic expectation among all the Jews
of this era Hellenistic and Chasidic was very strong.11 In light of the oppressive rule of the Roman
empire, they looked for deliverance from God's anointed. This
translation of Isaiah's prophecy underscores how deeply the Jews
of this inter-biblical era longed for the coming of the Messiah.
Luke provided several more pieces of evidence to the fact of
the virgin birth. He, too, used the specific term parthenos
when identifying Mary (Luke 1:27). Whereas one might acknowledge
Joseph's surprise since he knew he was not the father of the child,
Luke emphasized Mary's surprise as well. Her perplexity was real
and emotionally charged. Upon hearing that she would bear a son,
she puzzled, "How can this be since I have not been intimate
with a man?" (Luke 1:34) The angel informed her that
the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of the Most
High would overshadow her. While Mary was still trying to piece
this all together, the angel used a different type of birth miracle
to assure Mary. Every Jewish adult knew the history of the nation,
of Sarah's miraculous delivery of Isaac after she had passed child-bearing
age. The angel told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth, also past
child-bearing age, was also pregnant. These angelic words had
to have resonated with her: For nothing will be impossible
with God (Luke 1:37).
We cannot but wonder at the unfolding awareness that led to
Mary's willing acceptance of this news. Nor can we know what emotions
raced through her soul as she imagined the attendant shame she
may have borne as news of her pregnancy spread to those closest
to her. But we hear her utter a tremendous expression of faith
in verse 38, "I am the Lord's slave. May it be done to
me according to your word."
F. F. Bruce in a short essay called "The Person of Christ:
Incarnation and Virgin Birth," observed, "Whether other
New Testament writers knew anything about the virgin birth or
not, they say nothing to contradict it. Indeed, in one or two
places some of them seem to betray some acquaintance with it."12 While the remainder of the New Testament
is quiet concerning the birth of Jesus, there are a few hints
which show that the Apostles built their faith upon this common
tradition of faith.
Paul built his high Christology on a keen awareness that Jesus
was uniquely the God-Man. His classic statement is recorded in
Galatians 4:4-5, But when the completion of time came, God
sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we
might receive adoption as sons. In Romans 8:3-4a, he expressed
this thought: What the law could not do since it was limited
by the flesh, God did. He condemned sin in the flesh by sending
His own Son in flesh like ours under sin's domain, and as a sin
offering, in order that the law's requirement would be accomplished
in us. Bruce noted "'likeness' does not suggest that
His manhood was less than real, but that His human nature was
like our sinful nature except that His nature was unstained by
sin."13 This fully accords with Paul's
assertion in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that Jesus, as the One who
did not know sin, became sin for us. It also echoes
the great early Christian hymn in Philippians 2:5-11.
While the details of the birth of Jesus did not fit in John's
purpose for his Gospel, the pre-incarnate existence of Jesus played
a prominent role in his prologue. The foundational truth that
underscores John's message is that the eternal Word (John 1:1)
became flesh (John 1:14). He reiterates this fundamental truth
in his short first epistle whoever denies that Jesus the
Christ has come in the flesh reflects the spirit of antichrist
(1 John 4:2-3).
The Virgin Birth Considered
God had decreed, in a moral relationship, that every descendant
of Adam was under the curse of the Fall. Had Jesus not been born
in a manner that broke the lineal descent from Adam, He would
not have been free from the curse. But the lineal descent has
been broken. The Second Adam has come. His conception by the Holy
Spirit marked Him off as deity God with us. His
birth by a woman identified Him as a near kinsman in the flesh.
Old Testament teaching stressed the role of the Kinsman-Redeemer
the near kinsman, or go'el who was charged
to redeem the inheritance of one whose property had been forfeited
through poverty.14 The near kinsman must
be a blood relative; must have sufficient money to purchase the
forfeited inheritance; and must be willing to buy back the forfeited
inheritance (Leviticus 25 and 27; the book of Ruth). Coupled with
the law of levirate marriage, as in the book of Ruth, the redeemer
may also be required to marry the wife of the deceased kinsman
(Deuteronomy 25:5ff; Genesis 38).15
The righteous demands of redemption, which presuppose a supernatural
birth, are fully realized in Jesus, our go'el, our Kinsman-Redeemer.
Jesus became a blood relative of fallen humanity through the virgin
birth. Jesus alone had sufficient merit as the sinless Son of
God to pay the ransom for sinners. Jesus, of His own volition,
laid down His life to purchase the redemption of a fallen race.
Jesus has entered into a new relationship with those of us who
believe, in which He serves as the bridegroom and we are the bride
Can a person be saved without knowing of the virgin birth?
Absolutely. But, once one has been saved, his or her heart will
be strangely warmed when hearing the marvelous truth recounted
from the pages of Holy Scripture: Now the birth of Jesus Christ
was as follows ... (Matthew 1:18 NASB).
Coupled with this marvelous truth, But when the completion
of the time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under
the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive
adoption as sons, every redeemed heart will declare "Amen,"
will rejoice at God's gracious gift of salvation, and will bow
humbly in adoration and worship.
Matthews Sweet, The Birth and Infancy of Jesus Christ (New
York: Cassell, 1907), 249.
2 James Orr, "The Virgin Birth of Christ," in The
Fundamentals, Volume 2, edited by R. A. Torrey, A. C. Dixon,
and others (reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 247.
3 Robert Bruce Mullin, Miracles and the Modern Religious Imagination
(Hartford: Yale University Press, 1996), 154.
4 John Shelby Spong, Born of a Woman (San Francisco: Harper,
5 See, for example, Millard Erickson, Christian Theology,
One-Volume Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 739-758;
and Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
6 See the narrative of Ahaz's reign in 2 Kings 16 and 2 Chronicles
7 E. W. Hengstenberg, Christology of the Old Testament
(reprint, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1970), 152-160; and F. Delitzsch,
Isaiah, Volume 7 in Commentary on the Old Testament
by C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch (reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
9 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Volume 1,
s.v. "295 - btl," 137-138.
10 Ibid., Volume 2, s.v. "1630 - 'lm," 672.
11 F. F. Bruce, New Testament History (Garden City: Anchor
Books, 1972), pp. 122-134; and Paul Barnett, Jesus and the
Rise of Early Christianity (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press,
12 F. F. Bruce, "The Person of Christ: Incarnation and Virgin
Birth," in Basic Christian Doctrines, edited by Carl
F. H. Henry (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), 128-129.
13 Ibid., 125.
14 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Volume 1,
s.v. "300 - ga'al," 144.
15 Ibid., s.v. "836 - yabam," 359-360.
Roger S. (Sing) Oldham serves as the vice
president for Convention Relations with the Southern Baptist Convention
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