The Virgin Mary
Christmas is approaching. And as people the world over look forward to the gifts, decorations, and tinsel of the season, those of us who love the traditional carols anticipate with joy the sweet strains of such matchless hymns as “Silent Night, Holy Night,” first sung in St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, in 1818.
Franz X. Gruber composed the music at the request of a young German priest named Joseph Mohr, who wrote the poem in 1816 and wasted no time in articulating a fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith: “Round yon virgin mother and child.”
The doctrine of the virgin birth is so central to salvation that it’s a wonder anyone who professes to be a Christian would dispute it. Yet dispute it they do. According to a report posted on the Internet, a poll of 7,441 Protestant clergy turned up the following statistics: Sixty percent of the Methodist ministers surveyed do not believe that Jesus was virgin-born; Presbyterian, 49 percent; Episcopalian, 44 percent; American Baptist, 34 percent; and American Lutheran, 19 percent.1
Was Mary a virgin? First, the Gospel of Luke says she was:
In the sixth month the angel, Gabriel, was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin [parthenos] espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary (1:26–27).
Second, Mary said she was. When Gabriel (the same angel whom God had dispatched to the prophet Daniel, Dan. 8:16; 9:21) told Mary she would bear a son, she replied, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Lk. 1:34).
Then comes Isaiah 7:14, probably one of the most maligned prophecies in Scripture. Critics have thrashed it around for centuries and tried to rip it to shreds by claiming that the Hebrew word almah, used for “virgin,” really means “young woman.” The truth is that before the birth of Jesus, Jewish scholars widely considered Isaiah 7:14 to be Messianic.2
The prophecy arrived during unusual circumstances. The Davidic dynasty—the exclusive possession of the southern kingdom of Judah—was in danger of annihilation. The northern kingdom of Israel had conspired with Syria to depose King Ahaz and end the Davidic dynasty through which God had promised to bring the Messiah. Though evil and faithless, Ahaz was, nevertheless, King David’s legitimate heir.
So God sent Isaiah and his young son, Shear-jashub, to Ahaz. “Fear not, neither be faint-hearted. . . . Thus saith the Lord GOD, It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass” (Isa. 7:4, 7). Isaiah assured Ahaz the Davidic monarchy was safe and urged him to confirm God’s promise by asking for a sign. But Ahaz could not have cared less about a sign from God. He already had gone to Assyria for help (2 Ki. 16:7–9).
However, God graciously gave a sign anyway—not merely to Ahaz, but to the entire house of David (v. 13):
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [meaning “God with us”] (Isa. 7:14).
The sign was Jehovah’s unbreakable promise to the Jewish people that He would bring the Messiah through David’s line and that He would do it through a miraculous birth, just as He miraculously had birthed the nation of Israel itself through a woman too old to bear children and a 100-year-old man (Gen. 18:10–11; 21:1–7). God said, in essence, “Look for that birth, and you’ll know that I am with you.”
Then Isaiah may have turned to his little son, Shear-jashub, and told Ahaz, “Before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken by both her kings” (Isa. 7:16). In other words, “Don’t worry about Israel and Syria. I’ll take care of them Myself.”
Long before Jesus was born, 72 Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. The celebrated work, called the Septuagint, left no room for doubt concerning Isaiah 7:14. The men had translated almah into the Greek word parthenos, which irrefutably means “virgin.” The Septuagint was the Bible Matthew used when he wrote,
Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, which, being interpreted, is God with us (Mt. 1:22–23).
Was Mary a virgin? Indisputably. But in the end, we don’t believe based on fact; we believe based on faith.
It takes faith to believe that God created the universe in six, 24-hour days. It takes faith to believe that Moses led the Israelites through the midst of the Red Sea on dry land; that God gave the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai; that the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is God’s Word; and that God so loves you and me that He came to Earth as Messiah of Israel, born of a Jewish virgin, and became the final sacrifice for even our most grievous sins.
Soon people will sing “Silent Night, Holy Night,” declaring anew the virginity of a Jewish girl whom God used to fulfill a promise He made to the Jewish people. Through them, He brought salvation to a needy, sinful world. Was Mary a virgin? The Bible says she was indeed. It also says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1) and that “without faith it is impossible to please him” (Heb. 11:6).
God once asked Abraham, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” (Gen. 18:14). Perhaps on that answer rests the difference between eternal life and eternal death.