Why A Virgin Birth?

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

[The] angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God." (Luke 1:26-35 NRSV)

Sometimes we, in the Twenty-First Century, are quick to pass over the Biblical passages which affirm the virgin birth of Jesus. They are often thought of as sounding "outdated" and "antique," or "foreign" and "impossible," to our modern ears and scientific sensibilities. Indeed, among many people today – even among many Christians – one can frequently hear the remark: "Virgin birth? Humph! Don’t be preposterous!"

There is nothing preposterous about it. The virgin birth is both Biblically and theologically central to the affirmation of Jesus as being both human and divine. In the above passage, Mary’s question speaks volumes as to the nature of the conception of Jesus, and her puzzlement as to its means: "How can this be," she asked, "since I am a virgin?" Contrary to how they are usually depicted, scripture is fairly clear that Mary and Joseph were not yet married, but only engaged to be married. Hence, at the time of the annunciation by Gabriel, they had not yet had sex. This made the proclamation of her impending pregnancy a great curiosity, and occasioned her question. Since she was still a virgin, how could she possibly be "with child?"

The answer provided by the archangel Gabriel has given nearly 2000 years of scholars reason to debate. Gabriel said: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…." While poetic in structure, both halves of the answer should be examined.

Firstly, Mary is told that the Holy Spirit will "come upon" her. This phrase is very similar – if not identical – to the way in which the Old Testament prophets were encountered by the Holy Spirit just prior to either their calling into ministry or, as was more common, just prior to their "speaking for God." In each instance it would appear that the Holy Spirit "coming upon" them meant that they became a vessel for God to communicate His will, a mouthpiece or speaker for God. In Mary’s case, what she would be delivering was not just spoken words, but the very Incarnate Word of God, Jesus.

Secondly, Mary is told that "the power of the Most High will overshadow" her. The word "overshadow" is in Greek: episkiasei, meaning "oversee" or "protect" or "cover." It is also found, elsewhere, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, where it references the cloud which descended upon Peter, James, and John when they were on the Mt. of Transfiguration. God spoke to them out of that cloud, saying: "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Hence, the term indicates a divine, helping, revealing, overshadowing presence. In the case of Mary, she is promised that the power of the Most High would protect and enable her, even though she is still a young virgin, to conceive a child in her womb.

Gabriel concludes: "therefore [i.e., because of this overshadowing] the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God." The implication is clear: because the child is the result of Mary’s being overshadowed – protected by the power of God in the process of conception – the child will be "holy" and the "Son of God." While certainly a human child, nevertheless this baby will be God’s Holy Son.

Hence, the reality of the consubstantial divinity and humanity of Jesus is affirmed and established by the doctrine of the virgin birth. It is by the very process which enabled the conception of Jesus by the blessed Virgin Mary that Jesus was also made both God and Man.

In short, the Virgin birth is not just an optional addition to the Christian faith. Rather, it is critical if we are going to have a true understanding of Jesus as both our God and our brother.

During each annual Christmas celebration, when most Christians give thanks for the the incarnation of God in human flesh as Jesus of Nazareth, I encourage you to ask that the power of the Most High might overshadow you, as well, so that the Christ Child may come to dwell in your heart again. True, Jesus wasn't born on December 25th — most likely, he was born in September — nevertheless, for more than 1500 years the Church has celebrated his birth at the time of the winter solstice. There's nothing wrong with this, nor in recognizing the historic truth, nor in having a great big party at Christmas. And, if we are having a great big party at this time of year, and choosing to celebrate Jesus' birth now (for whatever reason), let's take a moment to do what Mary did, and open ourselves to the love, grace, and peace, and life transforming presence of God. God wants to overshadow us so that Christ can be born in our hearts, by faith. Will you let him in?

Come, let us adore him!

© 2003 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.