The significance of the virgin birth

Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus is not as well known as Luke’s but it is just as important. Matthew gives is the genealogy of Jesus from Joseph’s side, while Luke gives it from Mary’s side. Joseph’s lineage is important because it traces the ancestry of Jesus from Abraham and through David. Of even greater importance, however, is the fact that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus–and that Jesus had no biological father at all. This is a point Matthew makes quite clear. Beginning in verse 18, Matthew says, in essence, “here’s the way it happened.”

First, Mary and Joseph were betrothed. In Jewish custom, a betrothal was just as binding as a marriage. It was much stronger than an engagement in our culture. While ending an engagement may be awkward and even painful, there are no legal ramifications or consequences for doing so. It can be accomplished through mutual agreement or by just one party changing his or her mind, and it takes nothing more than saying, “I changed my mind.” Not so with a betrothal. While a betrothed couple was not yet married, and the marriage certainly had not been consummated, the man and woman were viewed legally as being married and the only way to terminate a betrothal was through divorce.

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia:

The term “betrothal” in Jewish law must not be understood in its modern sense; that is, the agreement of a man and a woman to marry, by which the parties are not, however, definitely bound, but which may be broken or dissolved without formal divorce. Betrothal or engagement such as this is not known either to the Bible or to the Talmud, and only crept in among the medieval and modern Jews through the influence of the example of the Occidental nations among whom they dwelt, without securing a definite status in rabbinical law.

Several Biblical passages refer to the negotiations requisite for the arranging of a marriage (Gen. xxiv.; Song of Songs viii. 8; Judges xiv. 2-7), which were conducted by members of the two families involved, or their deputies, and required usually the consent of the prospective bride (if of age); but when the agreement had been entered into, it was definite and binding upon both groom and bride, who were considered as man and wife in all legal and religious aspects, except that of actual cohabitation.

The Hebrew root (“to betroth”), from which the Talmudic abstract (“betrothal”) is derived, must be taken in this sense; i.e., to contract an actual though incomplete marriage. In two of the passages in which it occurs the betrothed woman is directly designated as “wife” (II Sam. iii. 14, “my wife whom I have betrothed” [“erasti”], and Deut. xxii. 24, where the betrothed is designated as “the wife of his neighbor”). In strict accordance with this sense the rabbinical law declares that the betrothal is equivalent to an actual marriage and only to be dissolved by a formal divorce.

Matthew tells us that when Mary became pregnant it was after the betrothal but before “they came together.” I think this has two connotations to it. First, after a man and woman were betrothed there was a period—often one year—in which the husband-to-be would leave his wife-to-be, return home to his parents’ home and build a home—literally, a series of rooms—onto their home for he and his wife. So what was called the “hometaking” had not yet occurred. Second, the physical union of Joseph and Mary had not yet taken place. They were betrothed, not married, and they were neither living together nor had they consummated their marriage.

Mary was “found with the child of the Holy Spirit,” Matthew says in verse 18. In Luke 1, starting in verse 26, we see Luke’s account of the announcement of Christ’s birth. In verse 31, Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive a son. In verse 34 Mary asks how that could be. Mary, it says, asked the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” That is how it is translated in the KJV and NKJV, but the ESV, NIV and NASB render it, “how can this be, since I am a virgin?”

John MacArthur comments on this verse this way: “Mary understood that the angel was speaking of an immediate conception, and she and Joseph were still in the midst of the long betrothal…before the actual marriage and consummation. Her question was borne out of wonder, not doubt, nor disbelief, so the angel did not rebuke her as he did Zacharias (v. 20).”

At the end of verse 18, Matthew says that Mary “was found with the child of the Holy Spirit.” Both Matthew and Luke make it explicitly clear that Mary was a virgin at the time she became pregnant with Jesus. We all know this, of course, but we may become so comfortable with the fact that we fail to comprehend how incredibly important this fact really is.

In his book The Person of Christ, Donald Macleod writes,

The virgin birth is posted on guard at the door of the mystery of Christmas; and none of us must think of hurrying past it. It stands on the threshold of the New Testament, blatantly supernatural, defying our rationalism, informing us that all that follows belongs to the same order as itself and that if we find it offensive there is no point in proceeding further.

John MacArthur has written, “The importance of the virgin birth cannot be overstated. A right view of the incarnation hinges on the truth that Jesus was virgin-born.”

David Mathis, in an article entitled “The Virgin Birth,” has written this:

What is the significance of the virgin birth? To begin with, it highlights the supernatural. On one end of Jesus’ life lies his supernatural conception and birth; on the other, his supernatural resurrection and his ascension to God’s right hand. Jesus’ authenticity was attested to by the supernatural working of his Father.

Secondly, the virgin birth shows that humanity needs redeeming that it can’t bring about for itself. The fact that the human race couldn’t produce its own redeemer implies that its sin and guilt are profound and that its savior must come from outside.

Thirdly, in the virgin birth, God’s initiative is on display. The angel didn’t ask Mary about her willingness. He announced, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:31). God didn’t ask Mary for permission. He acted—gently but decisively—to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).

Finally, this virgin birth hints at the fully human and fully divine natures united in Jesus’ one person. The entry of the eternal Word into the world didn’t have to happen this way. But it did.

That Jesus was born of a virgin is a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah in chapters 7 and 49. If you believe in the authority and inerrancy of the Bible then there is no doubt that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant and still when she gave birth to Jesus. The Hebrew word used in Isaiah is sometimes translated as “a young woman” or “an unmarried woman,” which has caused some so-called scholars to suggest that Mary was not actually a virgin. The Greek word used by Matthew, however, is an unambiguous term–there is no other possible meaning or translation of the word.

Writing for Answers in Genesis, Chuck McKnight explains it this way:

The Hebrew word translated as “virgin” is ‛almah. While it is sometimes translated as “young woman,” we must look at the context to determine what it means in this particular instance. The birth prophesied in Isaiah 7:14 was to be a special sign from the Lord—a clear demonstration of His power. As young women regularly conceive and give birth, that would hardly make for a unique indicator. If ‛almah only meant “young woman” here, then any one of the billions of births since then could be claimed as a fulfillment of prophecy.

It was not, of course, possible for any one of the billions of births to fulfill the prophecies or to provide the perfect atoning sacrifice necessary to provide forgiveness for the sins of mankind. That Jesus was born of a virgin narrowed the candidates for prophecy to fulfillment to one. It was biologically impossible for a virgin to conceive. Even with the scientific advances we have today, which make unnecessary the act of sex in order for pregnancy to occur, a woman cannot become pregnant without the essential chromosomal contribution of a male. When Mary conceived the baby Jesus, however, there was no contribution from a male. Mary conceived miraculously, doing something no human had ever done before or has ever done since. Mary, a virgin, gave birth to Jesus, the Messiah. The one and only human who ever lived who fulfilled all of the Old Testament prophecies, the one and only human who ever lived a sinless life, and the one and only human who could pay the penalty for sin demanded by a just and holy God. So let us not lose sight of the virgin birth, because nothing could be more significant.

Heaven IS For Real

I’m going to go ahead and tell you right up front…this post is going to offend some people. There are going to be some individuals who tend to agree with on most anything else who will disagree with me on this. I’m prepared for that. This is, after all, my own opinion and conviction and I certainly respect the right of others to hold opinions and convictions that differ from mine and be just as confident that they are right.

There is a “major motion picture” out right now based on the best-selling book Heaven Is For Real, by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent. The book tells the story of Burpo’s son Colton visiting heaven when he was four years old after a burst appendix resulted in emergency surgery and nearly took Colton’s life. This book is perhaps the most well-known, but is but one of a multitude of books that have been released in recent years purporting to provide first-person accounts of what heaven is really like.

In the interest of full disclosure I need to tell you that I have not read Burpo’s book or any of the others that are out there. That I have not read them is probably of interest to you but it is not a factor in the fact that I do not believe these books are true. Indeed, I find it quite appropriate that the author of one of these books has the last name “Malarkey,” because in my mind that is what most of these books are. Here are but a few of the many books out there…

* Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife, by Eben Alexander
* To Heaven and Back: A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again: A True Story, by Mary C. Neal, MD
* 90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life, by Don Piper
* My Journey to Heaven: What I Saw and How it Changed My Life, by Marvin Besteman
* The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven: A Remarkable Account of Miracles, Angels, and Life beyond This World, by Kevin and Alex Malarkey
* Waking Up in Heaven: A True Story of Brokenness, Heaven, and Life Again, by Crystal McVea with Alex Tresniowski
* My Time in Heaven: A True Story of Dying…and Coming Back, by Richard Sigmund

There are others. There are also, by the way, books about individuals who claim to have gone the other direction and had first-person glimpses of what hell is like. (I feel the same way about those books).

So why, having not read any of the books mentioned above, am I so confident that the books are not true? The primary reason I do not believe them is because I find no biblical evidence to support their validity. At the same time, I find plenty of biblical support for questioning these accounts. Here are a few reasons…

In John 3 Jesus is having a conversation with Nicodemus. In the course of that conversation Jesus says this: “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (verses 12 and 13). I can see no reason to believe that if no one had ascended into heaven when Jesus was talking to Nicodemus that multiple people are doing so now.

Another problem I have is with the inconsistency of these modern accounts of heaven when compared to what the Bible does tell us. The Apostle Paul had a vision of heaven and he wrote that he could not even describe what he had seen. Indeed Paul did not even refer directly to himself when describing this vision; instead, he said he knew a man… Of what heaven was like Paul writes that he “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Corinthians 12:4). The biblical writers who do describe visions of heaven focus almost exclusively on the glory of God and they try mightily to present what they saw in terms humans can understand but their accounts are full of the word “like”–that what they had seen was “like” something humans can relate to. I believe that is because heaven will be unlike anything we can understand in our finite human minds.

In a column he wrote last month on this phenomenon John MacArthur points out that there are several biblical accounts of individuals being raised from the dead, including the widow’s son raised by Elijah, Lazarus and others raised by Jesus and Eutychus raised by Paul. Interestingly, there is no account from any of these individuals about “the afterlife,” about anything that they saw or experienced while their bodies were dead. “Not one biblical person ever gave any recorded account of his or her postmortem experience in the realm of departed souls,” MacArthur wrote.

Heaven is absolutely real–as is hell. But God did not deem it necessary for us to know the particulars of what they will be like. The natural curiosity of humans causes us to want to know what eternity will be like, and I do not see there being any problem with wondering. Questions like, “Do you think there will be _________ in heaven?” are not wrong. (You can fill in the blank with whatever it is that makes you happy and you cannot imagine heaven without). There is nothing wrong with being “heavenly minded.” Indeed, it is probably a good thing! But if we were meant to know what heaven is really like God would have told us. That He did not means that we must not need to know.

Here’s another reason why I think the accounts of heaven contained in the books described above are not legitimate: I do not think that any of the details of the physical beauty of heaven or the activities taking place there are going to be our focus. I suspect all of that will pale in comparison to the glory and majesty of Holy God.

John MacArthur is known for being blunt, and he did not disappoint in his March column. Here is what he has to say about these accounts: “Readers not only get a twisted, unbiblical picture of heaven; they also imbibe a subjective, superstitious, shallow brand of spirituality. Studying mystical accounts of supposed journeys into the afterlife yields nothing but confusion, contradiction, false hope, bad doctrine and a host of similar evils.” That may be worded stronger than I would have said it but, frankly, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Yes, heaven is for real…but I doubt all these accounts of visiting it are real.

Beware Appearances (Part 2)

Yesterday I looked at the danger of focusing on image enhancement at the church level, a concern raised by John MacArthur in a February Tabletalk article and by Sophia Lee in a December WORLD article. Today I want to address the danger of focusing on image at the personal level.

MacArthur writes, “Worst of all, this attitude is pervasive at the individual level. Far too many Christians live as if a pretense of righteousness were as good as the real thing.”

He goes on to point out that this was the major error of the Pharisees. So true is this, in fact, that the very words “Pharisee” or “pharisaical” are now used to describe someone who is far more concerned with the external than the internal. defines “pharisaical” this way: “practicing or advocating strict observance of external forms and ceremonies of religion or conduct without regard to the spirit; self-righteous; hypocritical.” Hypocrite is probably one of the most common synonyms for Pharisee in any contemporary vernacular. Not exactly anything to aspire to!

The Pharisees’ problem was that they had mastered the art of making, interpreting, creatively bending and then living by the rules. So hung up on rules were they that they greatly added to the Ten Commandments God gave Moses and generated lists of hundreds of rules. So hung up on rules were they that they condemned Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath, condemned His disciples for grinding grain on the Sabbath when they plucked a few heads of grain with their hands while walking through a field. So hung up on rules were the Pharisees that they completely missed–indeed even denied–that Jesus was the Messiah because He did not fit their idea of what/who the Messiah should/would be.

MacArthur writes, “The Pharisees’ teaching placed so much emphasis on external appearances that it was commonly believed that evil thoughts were not really sinful as long as they did not become acts. The Pharisees and their followers became utterly preoccupied with appearing righteous.” Jesus, of course, turned that manner of thinking on its head, making clear that hating someone or lusting after someone is no different than murder or adultery. In other words, thoughts matter just as much as actions! No wonder the Pharisees hated Jesus; He challenged their entire religious system and made clear that all their rule-keeping was for naught.

Few, if any, of us have the same fastidious attention to countless rules that the Pharisees did. That does not mean at all, though, that we are not just as hung up on external appearances. How comfortable we can get carrying our Bibles to church every Sunday and bowing our heads before every meal, deluding ourselves into thinking that surely means we’re doing pretty good. God doesn’t look at that stuff, though; He is far more concerned with our hearts. He made it clear way back when Samuel was anointing a king for Israel that man looks at appearances but God looks at the heart.

What we do matters; do not take anything I am saying here to mean otherwise. James, of course, makes it crystal clear that our faith must be demonstrated by our works. But faith must precede works. The Pharisees saw no need for faith; works was their means to salvation. So we should carry our Bibles and go to church on Sunday, we should tithe and give offerings, we should show love and mercy in our interactions with others, but all of those things must flow out of a heart transformed by the realization that none of that will get us to heaven or earn us anything. We must also grasp that none of those things negate any “secret” sins of the heart and mind. No one else may see or no about them but God does, and He cares about them. They matter to Him.

In MacArthur’s words, the central lesson underscored by Jesus was this: “External appearance is not what matters most.” Let us not forget that.

Beware Appearances (Part 1)

The 2014 issue of Tabletalk from Ligonier Ministries contains an article by John MacArthur entitled “Appearance Is Everything?” MacArthur begins the article recounting a letter received by his ministry from an advertising agency that contained this message: “Let’s face it: appearance is everything. Let us help you enhance your image.” Initially MacArthur thought that the agency must not have realized it was writing to a Christian ministry. After further reflection, though, MacArthur came to this conclusion: “that is precisely the impression many unbelievers get from the state of evangelical Christianity today: appearance is everything.Truth and reality often take a back seat to image.”

That is a sobering thought. When I read it reminded me of something else I read a couple of months ago, so I dug it out. The December 14, 2013 issue of WORLD contains an article by Sophia Lee on the television show The Preachers of L.A. I have never seen the show, but Lee describes it as a reality show on the Oxygen network starring six mega-pastors. According to Lee’s review, “They claim to live for God, His people, and His kingdom. But halfway into an episode, it becomes clear that they are the gods–though they sure do love the people for their adoration, and they’ve built a nice earthly kingdom for themselves.”

MacArthur’s article is not about super-rich pastors of mega churches and I do not intend to turn this post into that, either. Indeed, MacArthur’s focus is more on the appearances Christians tend to present individually in their day-to-day activities. Lee’s article is about the appearance presented by individual mega church pastors but also about the appearance presented by mega churches and parachurch ministries. I would like to address Lee’s point first and MacArthur’s second.

Later in her article Lee mentions three former pastors who now “own a consulting company, called Church Hoppers, which helps struggling churches balance three components: business, marketing and systems.” Interesting, is is not, that the three-fold purpose of this church consulting group includes nothing about biblical principles, sound doctrine or theology. In fact, Lee proceeded to ask one of the partners of Church Hoppers about what they do if the church they are consulting with has a problem that is theological. “We’re not going to go in and try to change their theology,” Lee quoted Jerry Bentley saying. “I think churches are there in the community to meet the community’s needs.” Lee elaborated by explaining that Church Hoppers exists to “help churches give ‘customers’ what they want.”

First of all, there is a real problem when “customers” is the word used to refer to or think of individuals attending church or considering attending a church. This mentality is what led to much of the error of the seeker-friendly movement. This mentality is what leads many churches to put food courts and bookstores and other “amenities” within the confines of the church. Food courts and bookstores and playgrounds and coffee shops are not wrong in and of themselves, I might add, but the motivation for including them must be questioned. Churches need to plan and design their ministries first and foremost based on what people need, not what they want. After all, what people need and what people want are polar opposites if you believe in the total depravity of man. In their sin nature no one wants to hear sermons about sin or hell or the need for a Savior. That is exactly what sinners need, though.

I feel quite certain that the Apostle Paul would have run the other way had anyone suggested to him that he should consider improving his image, that he should carefully consider what the “customers” were looking for. Paul, after all, received the message loud and clear, on numerous occasions, that what he was offering was not what very many people wanted. He never wavered in his mission, though, because he was all about pleasing God not pleasing people. He was so committed to that mission that after being stoned and left for dead he got up and walked back into the town! I rather doubt market analysts would recommend that response.

Church Hoppers focuses on “business, marketing and systems.” I would suggest that churches focus instead on the Basic Message of Salvation. When churches remain faithful to the Word of God they will have effective ministries and their church will grow. The church may not grow in attendance, in offering, in building size or in publicity, but those are not the measures of an effective church. Therein, of course, lies no small part of the image problem–image isn’t really worth much. After all, some of the largest, richest, flashiest and most well-known “Christian” ministries are teaching things and promoting things that are contrary to the Word of God (and not teaching things that are in the Word of God, I might add).

I should state that I am not anti-image. In fact, appearance does matter, I think. I believe that churches and Christian ministries should be good stewards of what the Lord has entrusted them with, and that includes presenting and maintaining a clean, well-cared for and pleasing physical plant, regardless of whether it is new or old, big or small, expensive or cheap. So do not read this to indicate that I oppose nice buildings, comfortable seats, attractive decor or well-manicured lawns. I do not…not by a long shot. Quite the contrary, in fact, I think that Christian ministries should present very impressive appearances if by “impressive” you mean worthy of respect. But the impressive appearance should come as a result of doing all things to the glory of God, not as a result of bringing glory to ones self or ones ministry. When that becomes the motivation the impressive appearance becomes an idol.

Let us remember the old adage that appearances may be deceiving, and appearances must not be where our focus lies.

Next time I will address the appearances MacArthur writes about, the appearances on the individual level….

Lessons from the Shepherds (part 3)

The third thing to notice about the shepherds is that they Announced Comprehensively. Not only did they hear the message, but once they heard it they acted on it. Then, after they had acted on it and seen Jesus for themselves, they announced it. Verse 17 says that, “[W]hen they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child” (NKJV). The Message paraphrases this verse this way: “They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child.”

The shepherds knew the truth about Christmas, and they went out to share it with everyone they saw. I can imagine them running through the streets of Bethlehem, shouting, grabbing people by the hands and telling them the wonderful news. How many of us have taken the time to share with someone this season–even just one person–that Jesus is what Christmas is all about?

When I was growing up my family had a tradition. We would get up and open presents at home on Christmas morning–my parents, my brother and me. (This is before my sisters were born). Then, we would drive eight minutes away to my paternal grandmother’s house. There we would eat brunch (which always included what we called “egg bake casserole”) and open presents with Grandma. After we had been there for a while we would drive 40 minutes to my maternal grandparents’ house, and there we would spend the rest of the day–opening presents, eating dinner, and so forth. But when I got to Grandma’s house in the morning I couldn’t wait to tell her what presents I had received from Mom and Dad. And when I got to Grandma and Grandpa’s house later I couldn’t wait to tell them what I got from Mom and Dad and from Grandma. Then, a day or two later, when I saw my friends, I would tell them everything I got for Christmas from Mom and Dad, Grandma, and Grandma and Grandpa! I had received these presents, and I wanted everyone to know about these great gifts.

Every believer has a wonderful gift from God–the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. And yet for some reason, most of us don’t seem too excited to tell anyone about that gift. We’ll tell people–even as adults, many times–about our new clothes or our new car or our new “toys,” but we won’t tell them about our new life in Christ…and the fact that they can have that gift, too!

The other thing that I think is worth noting about the shepherds announcing Christ’s birth is that there is no indication in the biblical account that anyone paid any attention to what they said. The only thing Luke tells us is in verse 18: “Everyone was surprised when they heard what the shepherds told them” (ESV). That’s it! They could have been surprised as in they were in awe of the birth of the Messiah, or they could have been surprised as in they thought the shepherds were crazy. Either way there is no indication that anyone else went to see the Baby for themselves. No where do we read that the stable was suddenly overwhelmed by crowds of people wanting to see Jesus for themselves. And remember, it’s not like there was no one in town! The whole reason Mary, Joseph and Jesus were in the stable in the first place is because all the inns were full!

Yet, and this is my imagination again, I suppose, I do not picture the shepherds being slowed down at all by whatever reaction they received from the people they told. Whether people smiled and nodded, said something like “Wow, that’s cool!” or told them to shut up and go away, I suspect the shepherds were still overcome with joy and still told everyone else they saw. Let that be a lesson to us, too–regardless of the reaction we may receive when we share the Good News, we need to keep spreading the Word!

Like the shepherds, we need to attend to God’s message, act on it, and announce His gift. John MacArthur calls the shepherds the “first New Testament evangelists.” “The shepherds’ story is a good illustration of the Christian life,” he writes. “You first hear the revelation of the gospel and believe it. Then you pursue and embrace Christ. And having become a witness to your glorious conversion, you begin to tell others about it. May God grant you the life-changing spiritual experiences and the ongoing attitude of enthusiasm and responsiveness that cause you to tell others that you, too, have seen Christ the Lord.”

It is easy to get caught up with the activities of Christmas time. There’s a lot going on. There is plenty of good, fun things to do. But if we forget or neglect what Christmas is all about then we will have ruined it. If we forget Christ, then we miss the point entirely. May we be like the shepherds and share the truth of Christmas, the truth of God’s Christmas present to the world, with everyone we meet.