Born of the Virgin Mary
The Bible says that the Son of God entered and left this world by acts of supernatural power. His exit was by resurrection-plus-ascension, and his entry by virgin birth: both fulfilling Old Testament anticipations (see Isaiah 7:14 for the virgin birth and Isaiah 53:10–12 for resurrection-ascension).
The entry and exit miracles carry the same message. First, they confirm that Jesus, though not less than man, was more than man. His earthly life, though fully human, was also divine. He, the co-Creator, was in this world—his own world—as a visitor; he came from God, and went to God.
The church fathers appealed to the virgin birth as proof, not that Jesus was truly divine as distinct from being merely human, but that he was truly human as distinct from merely looking human as ghosts and angels might do, and it was probably as a witness against Docetism (as this view was called) that the virgin birth was included in the Creed. But it witnesses against humanitarianism (the view that Jesus was just a fine man) with equal force.
Second, these two miracles indicate Jesus’s freedom from sin. Virgin-born, he did not inherit the guilty twist called original sin: his manhood was untainted, and his acts, attitudes, motives, and desires were consequently faultless. The New Testament emphasizes his sinlessness (see John 8:29, 46; Rom. 5:18ff.; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 7:26; 1 Pet. 2:22–24; etc.). Being sinless, he could not be held by death once his sacrifice was done.
The New Testament gives two complementary accounts of the virgin birth, evidently independent yet strikingly harmonious—Joseph’s story in Matthew 1 and Mary’s in Luke 1–2. Both show every sign of being sober history. Ancient historians, seeing themselves as artists and moralists, usually omitted reference to sources, but Luke drops a broad hint that he had Mary’s narrative firsthand (cf. Luke 2:51 with Luke 1:1–3).
Matthew and Luke give two genealogies of Jesus (Matt. 1:2–17; Luke 3:23–38), which has puzzled some, but there are at least two straightforward ways of harmonizing them. Either Luke’s genealogy gives Mary’s line, but starts with Joseph as Jesus’s putative father (v. 23) because it was standard practice to declare descent through males, or else Luke traces Joseph’s biological descent as distinct from the royal line of succession which Matthew appears to follow throughout. (See F. F. Bruce, “Genealogy of Jesus Christ,” in The New Bible Dictionary for the details.)
For the past century and a half skepticism about both Jesus’s virgin birth and his physical resurrection has been quite unreasonably strong. It began as part of a rationalistic quest for a non-miraculous Christianity, and though that quest is now out of fashion (and a good thing too) the skepticism lingers on, clinging to the minds of Christian people as the smell of cigarettes clings to the room after the ashtrays have been cleared. It is no doubt possible (though it is neither easy nor natural) to believe in the incarnation of the eternal, preexisting Son while disbelieving the entry and exit miracles; greater inconsistencies have been known; but it is much more logical, indeed the only reasonable course, to hold that since on other grounds we acknowledge Jesus and the Word made flesh, these two miracles, as elements in the larger miracle of the Son’s incarnate life, raise no special difficulty.
Being sinless, he could not be held by death once his sacrifice was done.
Certainly, if we deny the virgin birth because it was a miracle, we should in logic deny Jesus’s bodily resurrection too. These miracles are on a par, and it is unreasonable to accept either while rejecting the other.
Mary was a virgin till after Jesus’s birth, but later ideas of her perpetual virginity are merely fanciful. The gospels show that Jesus had brothers and sisters (Mark 3:31; 6:3).
“Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” in the Creed witnesses to the reality of the incarnation, not the glory of Jesus’s mother: the Roman Catholic Church, however, has sponsored the unhappy development of Mariology (Mary-doctrine) among theologians and Mariolatry (Mary-worship) among the faithful. Mariology, which sees Mary as co-redeemer, rests on the nonbiblical teaching that Mary, like Jesus, was born without sin (the immaculate conception) and entered resurrection glory straight after death (the assumption).
But the real Mary, the Mary of Scripture, saw herself simply as a saved sinner. “My spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour” (Luke 1:47 KJV). She sets us a marvelous example, not just of the privilege (and the price!) of cooperating in God’s plan to bless the world (see Luke 1:38; 2:35), but also of humble response to God’s grace. Parents are slow to take things from their children, and Jesus himself commented sadly at one stage that “a prophet is not without honor except . . . in his own house” (Matt. 13:57); but Mary and her family, after initial disbelief (cf. Matt. 13:57; Mark 3:20–35; John 7:3–5), came to living faith in her son (Acts 1:14). Have we learned from their example?
This article is adapted from Growing in Christ by J. I. Packer.
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