What God Told Isaiah
Was the Messiah’s birth supposed to be a miracle? Isaiah 7:14 says yes.
More than any other time of year, Christmas is when people talk about Jesus’ birth. You would think that after 2,000 years, Jesus’ miraculous conception would be universally accepted by everyone who claims to be a Christian. After all, if God were incapable of such a miracle, what kind of God would He be?
However, the virgin birth “was one of the most-discussed doctrines in 20th-century American evangelicalism,” according to Christianity Today.1 Wrote Mark Galli, “Many leading Christian scholars were doubting not merely six-day creationism but also classic Christian doctrines like Jesus’ bodily resurrection and his virgin birth, that is, the miraculous in general.”2
Yet it is precisely the miraculous that makes God, God. Not only does He perform miracles, but sometimes He tells us about them ahead of time.
More than 700 years before Christ’s birth, God promised the Jewish people a Messiah who would be virgin born. Isaiah 7:14 stands as one of the most important passages in all of Scripture and is foundational to everything the New Testament reveals concerning the Messiah. Upon this prophecy rest all the major doctrines concerning the triunity of God; ministry of the Holy Spirit; scriptural inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility; the sinlessness of Jesus; propitiatory atonement; regeneration; and justification—to name a few.
The New Testament clearly teaches the virgin birth and incarnation of Jesus, revealing how a miracle-working God provided salvation for mankind (Mt. 1:1–21, 23; Lk. 1:27, 31, 34–35).
The Prophetic Scene
Isaiah 7:14 was God’s revelation to King Ahaz of Judah around 735 BC, when Israel (10 northern tribes) and Syria threatened the Davidic, southern kingdom because Ahaz refused to join their fight against Assyria. God told the prophet Isaiah to take his son Shear-Jashub and meet Ahaz “at the end of the aqueduct from the upper pool, on the highway to the Fuller’s field” (Isa. 7:3). The Fuller’s field was where clothes were washed.
Isaiah was sent to assure both the king and the house of David that God would deliver them (Isa. 7:3–7). “Ask a sign for yourself from the LORD your God,” Isaiah told Ahaz, to which Ahaz replied, “I will not ask, nor will I test the LORD!” (vv. 11–12). His response was an outright lie. The historical record reveals Ahaz never depended on God and was seeking Assyria’s aid to make war on Israel and Syria (2 Ki. 16:1–8). Therefore, Isaiah told Ahaz that God Himself would give a sign to him and the entire house of David (Isa. 7:13–17).
The Prophetic Sign
Like many biblical prophecies, this sign contained two aspects: one to be fulfilled in the distant future (distant sign) and one to be fulfilled soon (near sign).
Distant Sign. Isaiah said, “Behold, the virgin [Hebrew, almah] shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (v. 14). The word almah refers to a young woman who never had a physical union with a man. Every use of the word in Scripture refers to a virgin or virgins (Gen. 24:43; Ex. 2:8; Prov. 30:19; Song 1:3; 6:8; Isa. 7:14).
In the third century BC, a group of Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek to produce what we call the Septuagint. When they came to the Hebrew word almah, they used the Greek word parthenos, which unequivocally means “virgin.” When Matthew wrote his Gospel in Greek, he quoted the Septuagint and used the same word: parthenos.
In the Hebrew text, the word contains the definite article, making it ha’almah, meaning, “the virgin.” The definite article indicates God had a specific person in mind. He promised the house of David would not lose its national identity until the Messiah (born of the virgin) would appear, whose name would be Immanuel, meaning “God with us.”
Immanuel is not a proper name but, rather, a description of the coming Son’s character. This prophecy was fulfilled centuries later when Mary, a virgin and direct descendant of King David, bore Jesus (Mt. 1:18–25; Lk. 1:31–35; Jn. 1:14). It was a miraculous birth, somewhat reminiscent of the miracle God performed in enabling 90-year-old Sarah to give birth to Isaac.
The Isaiah 7:14 prophecy also meant Israel’s Messiah had to be born prior to Judah’s national destruction in AD 70, which resulted in the burning of the second Temple and the scattering of the house of David throughout the world.
Near Sign. This non-Messianic event was recorded in Isaiah 7:3, 15–17. Isaiah took his young son, Shear-Jashub, with him to see Ahaz (v. 3) and said, “For before the Child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you dread will be forsaken by both her kings” (v. 16). In other words, before Shear-Jashub would be old enough to know right from wrong, the kings of Syria and Israel would meet their ends (v. 20)—which they did.
The Prophesied Savior
Matthew, a Jewish disciple of Jesus who wrote under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, understood Isaiah 7:14 to apply to Jesus:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. So 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 bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which is translated, ‘God with us’” (Mt. 1:18, 22–23).
Herein is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prediction of the virgin birth: Jesus, the God-Man and Messiah of Israel. Joseph was the Child’s earthly father, but not His biological father. An angel told Joseph to name the infant Jesus (literally, “Savior”) because He would “save His people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21).
Had Jesus not been born of the Holy Spirit, He would not have been God. If He had not been God, He would have been a sinner; and if He had been a sinner, He would have been powerless to save anyone from sin. It was necessary that He be the perfect, sinless Lamb of God in order to become the once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of the Jewish people and entire world.
Despite what Scripture clearly teaches, many people still struggle with the deity of Christ. Yet, as God told Abraham, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” (Gen. 18:14). God can do whatever He chooses, or He would not be God. So if you believe in God but don’t believe God would become man, perhaps this Christmas you should ask the Lord to help you believe in miracles.
- Mark Galli, “The Virgin Birth: What’s the Problem Exactly?” christianitytoday.com, December 20, 2017 (tinyurl.com/CT-mg-virgin).