Tough Questions: Why Does the Virgin Birth Matter?

Once upon a time, God’s people had an evil king named Ahaz.  His father and grandfather had been noble, godly kings, and his son Hezekiah would grow up to be Judah’s greatest king after David, but Ahaz was different.  He was so totally given over to idolatry, he burned one of his own children in a fire of sacrifice to his false gods.  So by and by, two armies, both much larger than Ahaz’s tiny force, started marching toward Jerusalem.  And Ahaz was quaking in his boots, offering to pay any price to a nation who would come and help defend him against these aggressors.  And God decided at that point to give Ahaz a second chance.  He sent the prophet Isaiah, who had advised Ahaz’s father and grandfather, to say to the young king, “Don’t be afraid of these armies.  God has them in the palm of His hand.  Just come back to Him.  Just try Him.  See if He won’t give you a great sign of His power, and defeat these two kings who want to destroy you.”  But Ahaz refused.  And so Isaiah said these famous words: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.


Isaiah might have been pointing to a young woman in the court that day, saying, “By the time this girl gets pregnant and has a baby, these two nations will be off your radar screen.”  But like so many prophecies in the Old Testament, this one had a dual meaning.  Essentially, Isaiah said, “Here is what God can do.  Someday, when you are long gone from the earth, and the two kings who oppose you are dead and forgotten, the Lord will show His power in an unexpected way.  He will bring into the world a man who is truly God.  And that man will be born in a way that has been impossible until now, of a virgin.”  Some 700 years later, the Bible teaches us that Isaiah’s prophecy came true in the birth of Jesus, the son of Mary of Nazareth in Bethlehem.  Now that makes for a wonderful story and a quaint manger scene, but does it matter today?  There are a great many people today who think the virgin birth of Jesus is a ridiculous legend.  They can’t understand how we can take such a claim seriously.  In this series, I’ve already talked about why we believe the Bible is a reliable information source, and we can take its words literally when we read them in their proper context.  Besides, if there is a God who created the entire world, as most people believe, would it be so difficult for Him to make one more person in an extraordinary way?  The question is not “Did it happen?”  The question is “Why?”  What relevance could there possibly be in a strange event 2000 years ago, in a tiny corner of the world?  How does that help the single person trying to survive another Christmas alone?  What could that possibly mean to the cancer patient who is pretty sure this is her last Christmas?  Does it really make any difference to the guy whose marriage is breaking up, at Christmas time, of all the times?

I say to you that the virgin birth of Jesus Christ is not only true, it is one of the most important facts in human history.  And I will tell you why.

Jesus knows your pain.  Do you remember the “God” billboards?  They started in Florida, where an anonymous, very wealthy Christian paid to have them staked out on the freeways.  Then they have spread across the country.  They were simple black billboards with a small message in white lettering that is supposedly from God.  They said clever things like, “Meet me at my house before the game.”  “Loved the wedding.  How about inviting me to the marriage?”  And then there’s my personal favorite: “Don’t make me come down there.”  Actually, God already did come down here, and that is what Christmas is about.  You and I and the rest of the human race were condemned.  The world needed fixing, and God was the only one who could do the job.  And so He came down.  Now, if you work a blue-collar job, imagine the CEO coming down from his high rise downtown to tour the plant.  Imagine he puts on a jumpsuit, steel-toed boots and a hard hat.  He has the outfit down, but does that make him one of the guys?  Does that mean he will understand what your life is like, what your concerns are?  An hour or so, and he’s back in his air-conditioned office.  We’ve all seen the spectacle of celebrities who visit our troops.   Inevitably, someone will hand them some piece of a military uniform, and they’ll put it on, posing for the camera in their soldier costume.  Does that make them a soldier?  Of course not.

Jesus could have taken the same route.  He could have put on a human costume and made an appearance.  It would have cost Him little to nothing.  But He didn’t.  The mere statement “He was born” says that God chose to become a tiny baby, to spend 9 months in the womb of a woman, to go through the painful and—especially back then—dangerous process of labor.  And then to come into the world so helpless, so weak and vulnerable.  Even at that, Jesus could have chosen to be born into a safe, comfortable life.  The son of a princess, perhaps, or a rich merchant’s wife.  He could have been attended by doctors at His birth, toasted by noblemen and celebrities.  He could have lived in luxury all His days—then the sacrifice wouldn’t have been so tough.  But Jesus was born of a virgin.  A young girl, probably a teenager.  An inexperienced child who had no husband.  A poor girl with a poor fiance, the subject of so many whispers and rumors He had to be born in a little town far from home.  So poor His first clothes were rags and His first bed was a feed trough and His first visitors walked on four legs.

So what does that mean?  It means He has been there.  Whatever pain you experience, Jesus understands.  Are you lonely?  He was despised and rejected.  In the key moment of His life, His 12 best friends abandoned Him.  Are you dealing with loss?  He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.  Do you feel dirty and worthless?  At the cross, the sin of the whole world was poured out on Him.  Do you wonder how that made Him feel?  Wonder no longer.  Among His last words were, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?  Jesus understands what you are going through.  And He alone has the power to get you through it.  He stands and says to all of us, Come to me, all who are weary and burdened down, and I will give you rest.

Jesus can do anything.  When Isaiah the prophet came to Ahaz the wicked king, he brought good news: “Just trust in me, Ahaz.  Turn over a new leaf.  See how I can take care of your enemies.”  But Ahaz couldn’t trust in a God he had never known.  700 years later, the angel Gabriel went to young Mary and told her she would give birth to the Messiah.  She said, “Um, but I am a virgin.  How can I have a baby?”  And Gabriel said, “Nothing is impossible with God.”  The tender young girl had faith where the mighty king had none.  She said, “Alright, if God says it, I believe it.  I’ll sign on with His plan.” Her exact words were, “Be it unto me according to your word, o Lord.” And God kept His promise.  He did the impossible.  He bypassed biology to make a baby in a way no baby had ever been made before.  He wanted Mary and Joseph, and you and I, to know that nothing is impossible with God.

I read once about a man in Australia named Peter Bunton who taught high school art class for decades.  Mr. Bunton was a Christian who happened to teach at a particularly rough school, and he felt very burdened for those kids.  He knew the answer to their problems was Jesus, but he also knew that if he tried to share the gospel with them in any verbal way, he would lose his job.  And so he determined to pray for them.  Every day, while they worked on their projects, Mr. Bunton prayed for those kids by name.  And at the end of every year, they would be gone, and a new crop of rough, spiritually lost kids would come.  Mr. Bunton never saw any real results, but he knew teaching was where God wanted him, and praying was all he knew to do, so he kept it up.  Years went by, and Mr. Bunton was retired and in his seventies when a pastor named Brian Roennfeldt came to see him.  Brian shared that his wife, Angie had been one of Mr. Bunton’s students.  Years later, she had accepted Christ, and she and Brian were now serving the Lord in a church.  And they knew of literally dozens of other students who had become believers after taking Mr. Bunton’s class.  Many of them were pastors and missionaries.  And Mr. Bunton was stunned and choked with emotion; all he had done was pray for them.  He had no idea what God was doing as a result of his prayers.

I would imagine many of you feel somewhat like Mr. Bunton about some area of your life.  Maybe someone precious to you is not a believer, and you want so desperately for them to know Christ.  Maybe you or someone you know is struggling and in poor health.  Maybe you have a sin problem, an addiction or a terrible old habit that keeps you from being all you can be.  No matter what the problem is, just remember the words of Gabriel to Mary: Nothing is impossible with God.  You don’t know what God is going to do, but I do know this: You’ll never see His power until you pray.  You will never experience a miracle until you take your burden and lay it at His feet.  The virgin birth reminds us that God can do anything.  Anything that stands against us belongs in His hands.

Jesus is more than a man.  The most important question in the world 2000 years ago is still the most important question in the world today: Who do you say that Jesus is?  Most people have an opinion on that question.  Many will say that He was a very good man, maybe the best man ever.  They’ll talk about the wonderful lessons He taught, how He came to bring peace on the earth and teach us to love our enemies, and how, if we would just try to live by His words and His example, the world would be a much better place.

But is that all Jesus is?  The virgin birth says no.  The virgin birth says that Jesus was born of a woman just like the rest of us, and so He was fully human.  He had a body like ours, that got tired, that caught the flu, that got hungry, that wore out.  He had emotions like ours, and felt things like anger and frustration and discouragement and temptation.  But at the same time, the virgin birth says He was more than a man.  Because no earthly man was His father.  He was conceived by the Holy Spirit.  God Himself placed that child inside Mary’s womb, and that is what makes Him unique.  It proves He was no mere man.  And so I ask you, do you believe it?  Who do you say that Jesus is?  If you believe this story about a virgin birth, that changes everything.  You can’t just go on with life as usual anymore.  You must cast aside everything to follow Him.  I think that’s why the virgin birth has been such a controversial doctrine.  If Jesus’ birth was normal, we could convince ourselves that He was just an extraordinary man, and nothing more.  We could relegate Him to the list of amazing heroes that we talk about and admire, like Lincoln, Gandhi, and King.  But He was so much more than that.

One Christmas Eve, a man named Jim slipped into the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.  It was a few minutes before the Christmas Eve service, and all around him, Jim could see the signs of Christmas cheer.  The greenery and lights were strung all over that vast auditorium. Children were running through the aisles, their eyes wide with expectation, since Christmas morning was only hours away. Men and women greeted each other with cheerful voices, dressed in their holiday best.  But Jim didn’t feel cheerful; he was a recovering alcoholic, six months sober.  This was his first Christmas without his family.  As he looked at the happy families all around him, his heart just broke.  He had to have a drink.  The service still hadn’t started yet, and Jim got up to leave.  But the pastor, Thomas Tewell, met him in the lobby.  Pastor Tewell had counseled with Jim before, even though he wasn’t a church member, so he knew about Jim’s alcoholism.  “Jim, where are you going?”  Jim was at least honest, “Oh, to go get a scotch.” “Jim, you can’t do that,” the pastor responded. “Is your sponsor available?”  Jim replied, “It’s Christmas Eve. My sponsor is in Minnesota. There’s nobody who can help me. I just came tonight for a word of hope, and I ended up sitting behind this family. If I had my life together, I’d be here with my wife and kids too.”

The pastor brought one of his associates over to talk with Jim for a moment, while he prayed about what to do.  The service was starting, but he knew he couldn’t ignore this man.  So as he stood up to welcome the people, he was also praying for wisdom.  He spoke these words, “I have one final announcement before we begin.  If anyone here is a friend of Bill Wilson, could you meet me in the back of the church?”  Bill Wilson is the name of the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous; “a friend of Bill W.” is sort of a code word for a recovering alcoholic.  All over that auditorium, people began to stand up and file out of the church while the congregation started singing carols.  Pastor Tewell got up a few moments later and preached a sermon about the incarnation, how God became man in Jesus, but as he says, “while I was preaching, the Word was becoming flesh out there in the vestry.”  What Jim learned that night was that Jesus had been there and understood His pain.  He found out that Jesus could do anything, even keep Him sober on a difficult Christmas Eve.  He found that Jesus was more than a man; He was the one and only Savior of the world.  What old wicked king Ahaz wouldn’t admit, couldn’t accept in the 7th century BC, Jim learned and experienced that Christmas Eve night.  Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, is the answer.  Is He your answer today?

Tough Questions: Why Don’t Christians Follow All the Bible’s Rules?

In 2007, the journalist AJ Jacobs wrote a book called The Year of Living Biblically.  It was the story of a year in his life, in which he devoted himself to living out every command in Scripture with complete obedience.  Jacobs described himself as a secular Jew (his exact quote is “I’m a Jew in the same sense that Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant”) and an agnostic, who wanted to get in touch with his spiritual side.  So he let his beard grow out, since Leviticus says men should not trim the edges of their beards.  He blew a shofar at the start of every month.  He tithed ten percent of his income.  He even stoned an adulterer, although the stones he used were only pebbles, and the adulterer, a man in his seventies, almost beat him up for it.  The book became a best seller.  CBS even made a sitcom about it, which only ran 13 episodes and was apparently terrible.  But it raises an important question: Why don’t I look like AJ Jacobs right now, with a long, unkempt beard, fringes on the edges of my garments, and the Law literally tied to my wrist and forehead?  Why don’t I sacrifice a bull on God’s altar when I sin or when I want to say thank you to God for His blessings?  For that matter, why do I mow my yard on Saturdays, when I’m commanded to rest from all my labors on that day?

This is a serious issue that every Christian must deal with.  When I was growing up, I was vaguely aware that there were some laws in the Old Testament that we as Christians didn’t follow.  I tried not to think about it.  After all, if I’m supposed to give up shrimp and bacon, I’d rather not know that.  I reached a crisis point when I began interacting with people online who knew that I was a Christian minister.  They would say things like this: “You Christians are inconsistent.  You’ll use the Bible to bash people whose sexuality is different than yours, but you ignore when it says you should avoid wearing garments of mixed fibers, or to stone a rebellious son to death.  You’re just picking and choosing the parts of the Bible that fit your agenda.”  Some would go on to say, “Of course you can’t live by the Bible like you claim to do.  The whole thing is ridiculous.  So you might as well admit it, instead of playing this charade and trying to force us to live like you want us to.”  So you and I, as Christians, have a bit of a double quandary: Are we indeed being inconsistent, as some unbelievers say?  And if so, does that mean that God is not pleased with us for failing to following the whole counsel of His Word?

The answer begins by defining the Bible’s true purpose.  It is not simply a book of rules, or “an instruction manual for life” as some call it.  It is a story, told over thousands of years, through dozens of individual writers, that can only be fully understood when read through the lens of Jesus’s life and redeeming work.  Here’s what I mean: A huge part of the first five books of the Bible is taken up with God establishing His Law.  That’s where we get the Ten Commandments, but also more bizarre rules like, You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.  In the Law, given to Moses atop Mt Sinai, God also established an intricate system of sacrifices, festivals and fasts.  The Law served three purposes: First, it was a constant reminder of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.  We can’t approach Him casually, as if we have a right to be in His presence.  We have to take care.  We have to eat the right foods and avoid the wrong ones.  We have to wear the right clothes.  We have make sure we haven’t had contact with anything unclean.  And we have to do the right sacrifices at the right time in the right way.  Second, it helped keep God’s people separate from their pagan neighbors.  God knew that if Israel followed the path of the other people in the land, it would lead to their downfall.  So He instituted rules that would remind them constantly that they weren’t like other nations.

The third purpose of the Law was to prepare the way for something else, something better.  We see hints of that in the Old Testament, such as when Samuel tells Saul in 1 Samuel 15:22 that
God doesn’t want sacrifices, He wants obedience.  Or in Hosea 6:6, when the prophet says that God desires mercy, not sacrifice.  Clearly, just following the rules was not enough in God’s eyes.  So what did that leave?  Jesus came along, and seemed to have a very strange relationship to the Law of God.  In Matthew 5:19, He said, Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  He then went on to say that not only are the Laws of the Old Testament still in force, they are much more comprehensive than we thought.  When it says do not murder, for instance, we aren’t even allowed to hate a brother in our heart.  When it says we shouldn’t commit adultery, we can’t even look upon a woman lustfully.  So Jesus didn’t do away with the commands of the Old Testament; He intensified them.

But He also said in Mark 7:19 that all foods were now clean.  Just like that, He did away with a huge chunk of the Old Testament Law and reversed centuries of tradition.  He would touch dead bodies, or menstruating women, or lepers, all of which made Him ritually unclean according to the Law.  What was He doing?  It certainly seemed like He was doing away with the Law; that’s the way His enemies interpreted His actions.  But He said in Matthew 5:17 that He had not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.  What did He mean?  How could a human being fulfill the Law of God?

The Book of Hebrews gives us the answer.  It says that all of the Law, including the sacrifices, feasts and rules, points ultimately to Jesus.  He is our once-and-for-all sacrifice.  He is our one and only High Priest.  He is the one who lived out the Law so we don’t have to.  When He died, the veil in the Temple was torn in two; so from now on, we get to God through Jesus, not through the Law.  When I was just out of college, I worked for a man who attended a church which believed the Law of God still applied.  They refused to celebrate Christmas, but kept days like Passover and the feast of Tabernacles.  They stuck to the Jewish dietary system, and he used to grumble at me about eating “unclean meats.”  But based on the New Testament, living by that Law makes about as much sense as lighting my home with whale-oil lamps, ignoring the fact that we’ve had electricity for a hundred years.  If an unbeliever asks why you don’t keep the Old Testament Laws, tell them that to do so would be to deny your Lord, who died to fulfill all of that for us.

Right now, I imagine some of you are thinking, “Come on Preacher.  Quit talking in circles.  All I want to know is, which rules do we still have to follow?”  And, with respect, that’s our problem.  We want to reduce our faith to a list of rules and rituals.  That’s so much easier than actually having a real relationship with God, actually following Jesus, actually living by the Spirit. When Jesus spoke out against the scribes and Pharisees, as He often did, people were shocked.  After all, those men kept the Law better than anyone.  How could Jesus, who claimed to be Israel’s Messiah, attack such wonderful, godly men?  Well, think about it this way: Imagine a man is newly married, and he comes to his young bride and says, “Alright, I need to know what is required of me.  How much time do I need to spend listening to you talk every day?  How often do I need to say ‘I love you?’  Can I save that for birthdays and anniversaries, or is it an every day requirement?  And tell me about your affection expectations.  How often will you need a nice, soothing hug?  I need to factor all of this into my busy schedule, you know.  Speaking of which, I have golf, hunting, fishing and football games to attend.  How often can I be gone without you throwing a hissy-fit?”  Would you say that relationship is off to a good start?  Of course not!  That’s not how you love someone.  Instead, you love them by living with them, learning what their needs are, what their love language is (thank you, Gary Chapman, for that term), and you grow in your ability to love them.

For example, I learned early in my marriage that my wife needs to live in a house that is clean.  If clutter starts to build up, it physically hurts her to see it.  She’s kind and patient and sweet, so she doesn’t blow up at me or the kids, but I can see the stress in her eyes (her twitching eyes, in fact).  On the other hand, I learned that she doesn’t really desire grand public displays of affection.  If I stood up in front of an entire restaurant full of people and loudly extolled her beauty, virtue and intelligence, she would be more embarrassed than encouraged.  That’s a shame, because I can do that.  In fact, I am much better at that than I am at cleaning up around the house.  But if I love her, I will put my shoes up when I take them off.  I will take the dirty coffee cups, books and magazines off the end table before I go to bed.  I will remind the kids to put their stuff where it goes.  If I love her, I won’t say, “Tell me how often I need to pick up my stuff?”  I will just do it.  It took years and a lot of false steps to gain this understanding of my wife.  Truth be told, I still miss the mark quite often; thank God she loves me anyway.  If we are honest, our desire to simply know which rules in the Bible still apply comes from a yearning to control God.  We don’t want to do the hard work of having a real relationship.  Our attitude is: “Just tell me what I need to do, so I can do it and be on my way.” So the first step to understanding God’s Word is to repent of this simplistic concept of faith.

But having said that, the question still stands.  There are hundreds of commands in the Old Testament; why do we follow some today but not all?  The theologian John Calvin said that when you look at the Law, you see three different kinds of rules, civil, ceremonial, and moral.  Civil laws were given by God so that the people of Israel could form a nation.  They needed a foundation on which to build their society.  These laws functioned for Old Testament Israel the way our constitution does for us.  But that version of Israel is now gone.  The current nation of Israel is a secular nation, not a theocracy like it was in the Old Testament era.  So those laws no longer apply.  For example, in Leviticus 18, a person who committed incest was to be executed.  But in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul talks about a man in the Corinthian church who is sleeping with his own mother-in-law.  He tells the Corinthians to expel this man from their church, not to stone him to death.  What changed?  Why didn’t Paul follow Leviticus?  Because it was a civil law intended for a nation that no longer exists.  From Paul’s time to now, what matters most is not the laws of nations, but the behavior of God’s people, the church.  God wants His people to live in a way distinct from the world, so that’s what Paul emphasized.

Ceremonial laws included the sacrifices, festivals and the cleanliness rules, including the dietary laws.  All of these were intended to make the Israelites pure enough to stand in His presence.  But now that Jesus has come, He’s fulfilled those requirements.  We can boldly approach God’s throne of grace because His righteous standing has been transferred to us through His death on the cross.  We don’t need to circumcise our male children anymore, because the change the Holy Spirit makes in our hearts is better than an outward sign.  We don’t need to keep the Sabbath holy anymore, which is why Christians began worshipping instead on the first day of the week, the day Christ rose again.  Yet those ceremonial laws teach us important principles about God and life.  The Sabbath is a good example.  It’s a reminder that our lives work better when we take a day of the week off from work and life as usual, to refresh our souls and bodies in the presence of God and His people.

The moral laws are the ones that show us how to live a good life.  These still apply.  If you want to know which is which, ask, “Is this reaffirmed in the New Testament?”  For example, the eighth commandment (Exodus 20:15) says, “You shall not steal.”  This is a moral law, having to do with how we treat others.  Ephesians 4:28 affirms it: Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.  Notice that: Paul says it’s not just about not stealing.  We should work hard, so we have to opportunity to give to others, instead of taking from them.

So let’s return to the metaphor of marriage.  Jesus said the entire Law is summed up in two commands: Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.  If we want to live a God-pleasing life, we will build our lives around those two commands.  They will guide us in every decision, every priority.  The commands in Scripture, then become instructions for us to follow as we learn who God is and how best to love Him.  It’s like Him saying, “I don’t need for you to shout your love for me from the rooftops.  Just pick up your stuff at the end of the day.  I don’t need for you to buy me diamonds once a week.  Just listen to me when I’m speaking.”  In God’s case, He says, “Don’t steal your neighbor’s stuff.  Instead, work hard enough to share your stuff with Him.  When you do that, it’s like you’ve given it to me personally.”  If you center your life around loving God and loving your neighbor, you can’t help but grow in righteousness and joy; you will live the life you were meant to live.