The King’s Supernatural Birth
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis at Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas. He is a personal friend and former teacher of the editor. His current article is the first of several selected studies on various themes on the Gospel of Matthew which will appear in Focus in future issues.
Scripture Reading: Matthew 1:18-25 Introduction
To a world prepared politically, economically, morally, and spiritually Jesus came. “There is a tide in the affairs of men,” wrote Shakespeare, “which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” His time was God’s time. Paul knew this, too, for he wrote, “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law” (Galatians 4:4).
Not only were the circumstances of the entrance of the Messiah providentially arranged, but His birth also was a miracle. Matthew, who has written the royal gospel, has taken pains to point this out. There must be no question that the words of the superscription over the cross, a climatic note in the sweep of the gospel’s thought, are true. He really was “Jesus the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37).
The accounts of the birth of the Messiah are written from different standpoints, but they each agree in the fact and in the manner of His birth. In the Matthaean narrative it is stated twice that Mary’s conception was “of the Holy Ghost” (1:18, 20). Luke, who gives more detail concerning the birth itself, writes, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (1:35). Both accounts unite in the affirmation that He was “conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary” (Apostles’ Creed). While Mark does not expressly assert the virgin birth, his gospel is in harmony with it. He opens his narrative by referring to Jesus as “the Son of God” (1:1). Later one comes across the term “son of Mary,” but Mark never calls Him “son of Joseph, although He may be called that legally. John, too, agrees, for we hear our Lord saying, “Ye are from beneath; I am from above: ye are of this world; I am not of this world” (John 8:23; cf. 1:1, 14).
The Objections To The King’s Supernatural Birth
The Mythological objection. It has been asserted by some that the miraculous birth of Christ was a story invented by the early Christians to dramatize the origin of their Lord. If this were so, then it is doubtful if the church succeeded very well in its intentions. One also wonders how an account in which a babe is born in a manger in the presence of a carpenter and a few shepherds could have survived the competition with the story of the birth of Pallas Athena who, born by no mother, sprang out of the head of Zeus, full-grown and in full armour.
The biological objection. With some the chief problem of the virgin birth is its violation of natural processes. But, if we accept the inspiration and authority of the Word of God, we must be prepared to face the contravention of the natural, or the fact of the supernatural. Adam and Eve were both born without human parents. Is the creation or the virgin birth the greater miracle?
The Scriptural objection. There are certain biblical phrases upon which unbelievers have laid hold in order to cast doubt upon the virgin birth. For example, in Luke 2:33 we have the words, “Joseph and his mother,” and in 2:48, “thy father.” In Matthew 13:55 the question is asked, “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” There is, however, no difficulty with these clauses and phrases if we simply bear in mind that Joseph was indeed the father of Jesus in the purely legal sense. Joseph bowed to the miracle of God, took Mary into his house as his lawful wife, legitimizing and admitting Jesus in a formal, legal sense to the house of David.
The Account of The King’s Supernatural Birth
Joseph’s realization of Mary’s condition (1:18-19). In the days of Augustus Caesar, the man whom some wished to make God, two Hebrew men contracted a marriage between a young carpenter, a son of David, and a pious maiden, also of David’s family, from whom would come the God who became man. Some time after the engagement, which was legally binding, knowledge came to the young man that the maiden was pregnant. A struggle began within the mind and heart of the man. But if Joseph was in doubt over the origin of the maiden’s pregnancy, the Scripture is not. Twice Matthew says that the child was “of the Holy Spirit” (vv. 18, 20), a phrase which refers to a secret we can never really fathom, only adore. As Campbell Morgan put it, it is “the Holy Mystery — the touch of God upon the simple life that made it forever sublime.”1
Finally, Joseph made up his mind and determined to divorce Mary privately, with the minimum number of two witnesses.2
The angel’s revelation to Joseph (1:20-23). During a restless night Joseph was visited by the angel of the Lord, who informed him of the divine origin of the maiden’s child. We shall have no problem with the divine conception if we remember at least these things. In the first place, the Lord Jesus did not have common human parentage, although He was completely human. He had no human father; He possessed divine nature as well as human nature. In the second place, He was not a new, original creation, a kind of hetero-human. We must not fall prey to any kind of Docetism by which the divine nature of Christ overshadows and overpowers the human. His humanity was not a camouflaged humanity. He possessed no phantom body.
A great deal of stress is laid upon the name Jesus in Matthew’s account. The angel informs Joseph that this is to be His name. Jesus, the Greek form of the Hebrew Joshua, means O Lord, save!, or Yahweh is salvation, or simply Yahweh saves.3The name itself was a message. Every time Mary and Joseph called His name the gospel was proclaimed. And that name suggested His calling. He is the second Joshua who will lead Israel into the promised land of salvation and the kingdom.
The name pointed to the fact that the real problem of the people of Israel was not political, the problem of Roman domination, economic, or social. The real problem was sin, as it is in our Western civilization, which is disintegrating in red ruin because we have not recognized and bowed to the doctrine of original sin. That doctrine was slain by human contempt, but the truth has lived on to document itself in subsequent history. And that we should have replaced this relevant and revealing teaching by the brainless babble of a Coue’ is a colossal marvel.4 There is no idiotic imbecility beyond the ability of great modern psychologists and philosophers to believe. Man’s greatest need is not human engineering, nor time, but salvation. This salvation our “Yahweh saves” came to provide by the blood of Golgotha.
The simplicity of the name of the Saviour is also remarkable. Men call their world rulers by names which make extravagant claims for them as, for example, Alexander the Great, Charles the Bold, and Richard the Lion-Hearted. How different is the simple Jesus! Genuine believers however, revere none of His names and titles more than this one, which so definitely underlines the office He holds. In the twenty-second verse we are introduced to the first of the quotations avowedly introduced by the author of the gospel with the impressive formula, “This is come to pass that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophet.” There are ten of the “fulfillment quotations,” which, if isolated, tell us considerable about the author’s purpose in writing the gospel.5 But the principal point the evangelist wishes to make here is that the birth of Jesus was the subject of Isaiah’s great Immanuel prophecy. The child born of the virgin, to be called Immanuel, would come into the midst of the degradation of His people Israel (cf. Isaiah 7:10-16) but ultimately overcome all His enemies (9:6-7). The sweep of Isaiah’s argument demanded that the “child” of 7:14 be the “son” of 9:6. Although born of a lowly virgin in Israel (cf. 9:6, “unto us”), He would be Immanuel, “the Mighty God,” and the government would be upon His shoulder. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that Matthew links the prophecy with the history of the birth of Mary’s son, because each of these elements is found in the history also. Of all the elements, however, the greatest stress lies upon His deity, or upon Immanuel. He is with us by virtue of the virgin birth, but let one never forget that He is God with us.
The response of Joseph (1:24-25). Joseph, then, following the angel’s appearance, obediently brought Mary home, publicly acknowledging her as his wife and formally legalizing the connection of her son with the Davidic line. But normal marriage relations awaited the birth of the infant.
He was given the name Jesus, the best, truest, and most appropriate name for Him in the days of His flesh, since it was divinely ordered and expounded. And, when believers plead this name, they bring back to God His own name for Him. It is the name that identifies Him with His people and the name which indicates His principal work. Think of knowing Shakespeare, but not as an author, or Bacon, but not as a philosopher, and Jesus, but not as Saviour. This is the sad situation of those who profess to know the Lord Jesus Christ as Master, or Teacher, but not as Redeemer.
The Importance Of The King’s Supernatural Birth
In contrast with the opinion of William Barclay, a noted Scottish professor, who claims that the virgin birth is a “crude fact,” and that it is a doctrine that his church does not compel him to accept in any literal sense,6 it has been the view of orthodoxy down through the centuries that the supernatural birth of Jesus Christ is an important teaching. I think orthodoxy is correct in this view. It is an important teaching.
In relation to the Word of God. In the prologue to Luke’s gospel the evangelist claims that he, possessing “perfect understanding of all things from the very first,” writes that Theophilus might know the “certainty” of the things in which he had been instructed (cf. Luke 1:1-4). The evangelist then proceeds to relate the accounts of the unusual birth of John the Baptist and the virgin birth of Christ. Now, suppose he is wrong on the very first important matter investigated? What confidence can we place in the remainder of the story? One can see that the account of the virgin birth is directly related to the trustworthiness of God’s Word.
In relation to the Son of God. In the first place, the virgin birth is necessary for a sinless Son (cf. Luke 1:35). If He had received Mary’s nature, He would not be able to save, for He, too, would have a nature under divine condemnation.
Further, if we accept the historicity of the gospel accounts, the choice that faces us is that of a virgin birth over against an illegitimate birth. It is clear from the record in Matthew that Joseph knew he was not the father of Jesus. In other words, the virgin birth is a refutation of illegitimacy.
In relation to the salvation of God. The virgin birth has ultimate connections with the cross. Helmut Thielecke has said, “Crib and cross are both of the same wood.”7 In a different context we may say that, if Jesus possessed Joseph’s nature, He possessed his sin. And, if He possessed his sin, He could not become our Saviour by the blood of Calvary. He would have needed a Saviour Himself.
In relation to the kingdom of God. Great stress is laid in both Matthew and Luke upon our Lord’s right to sit upon the throne of David in the kingdom of God (cf. Matthew 1:1, 17; 2:2; Luke 1:31-35). It is sometimes not realized that this right is directly related to the doctrine of the virgin birth. Jesus received legal title to the throne through Joseph and Solomon, but upon his ancestor Jecconiah, or Coniah, had been pronounced a curse of great magnitude. Jeremiah wrote, “Thus saith the Lord, Write ye this man (Coniah) childless, a man that shall not prosper in his days: for no man of his seed shall prosper, sitting upon the throne of David, and ruling any more in Judah” (22:30, italics added). While not deprived of legal title, the direct line of descent was smitten with a curse. The line could hand on to another that from which it could not profit, and this vacant title had passed on down from Jeconiah to Joseph. It might have seemed impossible to solve the problem that faced the fulfillment of the Davidic promises. Its resolution lay in the wisdom and power of God. Jesus, genuinely a son of David through Mary according to the flesh (cf. Romans 1:3), by reason of the virgin birth and nonparticipation in the seed of Joseph, qualifies to receive the title without coming under the curse. “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out” (Romans 11:33).
To this day He alone possesses the right to the throne of David, and the only remaining and reliable genealogies of the Jews are those of Matthew and Luke, and they validate His claim. The superscription of the cross, “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews,” flashes its light over the centuries and proclaims far and wide that He was God’s King. In this Man, this Davidic Man, also Immanuel, God is moving to the throne of royal, universal sway over the affairs of men. And, as Isaiah says, “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this” (9:7).
Ultimately, our response to the teaching of the virgin birth will hinge upon our view of Christ’s uniqueness. If we regard Him as a mere man, or even as Primus inter pares, we shall probably reject the virgin birth. But if we by God’s Spirit sense that He is unique – unique in history, unique according to His own consciousness in His relation to God and man, and unique in His redemption, will we not reason that it is credible that He be unique in His origin? We will concur with Denney, “He came from God, all the apostles believed, in a sense in which no other came: does it not follow that He came in a way in which no other came?”8
Would a word of appeal be considered in bad taste? Have we noticed and reflected upon His name Immanuel, – God with us? Is this personally true? Surely Phillips Brooks was right when he wrote the familiar carol:
“O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent years go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight!”
Yet the great preacher also emphazised the need of personal appropriation. Is He really God WITH US, with ME? Does the last stanza represent a prayer that we have made in the first person singular?
“O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in—
Be born in us today!
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell—
Oh, come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Immanuel!”
2 Cf. Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud and Midrasch (3rd ed.; Munchen, 1961), I, 45-47. The verbs suggest that Joseph had reached a decision, but was hesitating to carry it out. Knox renders verse 20, “But hardly had this thought come to his mind, when an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and said, Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take thy wife Mary to thyself, for it is by the power of the Holy Ghost that she has conceived this child” (The New Testament, New York, 1954, p.2).
3 Strack and Billerbeck, I, 45-47.
4 Emile Coué, French psychotherapist, best remembered for his formula for curing by optimistic autosuggestion, “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better.”
5 Cf. Robert Horton Gundry, The Use of the Old Testament in St. Matthew’s Gospel (Leiden, 1967), and others.
6 Barclay,/I, 10,13.
7 Helmut Thielecke, Christ and the Meaning of Life (New York, 1962), p. 23.
8 James Denney, Studies in Theology (London, 1902), p.64.