The Virgin Birth
When we talk about the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus Christ we begin by pointing out that there was nothing supernatural in the emergence of Jesus from the womb of Mary – what we usually refer to as the ‘birth’ of a baby. The whole process of foetal and embryonic development was again normal. We are told that when Mary’s “full time” had come she gave birth. But let us pause for a moment when we say that it was a ‘normal conception’. Consider your conception and mine, and how Christ’s was just like ours. “The single-celled embryo, at the moment of the fusion of egg and sperm, brings together two sets of genetic information from mother and father – in the form of the DNA code which, when spelt out letter by letter, would fill 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. These 24 volumes are packed into the nucleus of the cell, which is one-5,000th of a millimetre in diameter, which cell has the ability to replicate itself within a few hours and divide billions of times, eventually producing a fully formed human being.
“This trillion-times miniaturised, 24 Encyclopedia Britannica volumes’ worth of DNA information knows first how to ‘instruct’ the single-cell embryo to form the basic structure of the foetus with a back and front, head and limbs; and then to ‘instruct’ the cells to acquire the specialised function of a nerve or muscle or liver; and then ‘instruct’ them to link up together to form the metabolic factory of the liver or the pumping heart or the brain with its billions of connections; and then to ‘instruct’ them to grow synergistically through childhood and adolescence to adulthood.
“The extraordinary potential of the biological information locked in the nucleus of each and every cell can best be conceived of as the precise mirror image of the infinite size and grandeur of the universe” (Dr James Le Fanu, “The Miracle of Procreation,” Sunday Telegraph, December 19, 1999). In all of that, then, there was actually no miracle – in the technical sense of the word. Christ’s conception was as extraordinarily normal as ours.
Where then does the supernatural lie in the birth of Christ? In three places:-
1. It was a Supernatural Begetting.
Dr Lloyd-Jones quotes this little statement: “As the Lord’s divine nature had no mother, so his human nature had no human father.” “Jesus was not conceived in the womb by the conjunction of male and female, by spermal communication from the man to the woman. He was begotten (rather than conceived) by the Holy Spirit, and the miraculous consisted in this supernatural begetting. In the absence of human begetting, it was that which made the birth a virgin birth. In this connection it is not proper, strictly speaking, to say that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit (even though this is the phrase employed in the Apostles’ Creed) …What is said of Elizabeth’s conception in reference to her baby John (Luke 1:24, 26) is repeated of Mary and her child. The Holy Spirit begat, Mary conceived (cf. also Luke 2:21)” (John Murray op cit p.134).
Now let us here this observation: “The derivation from the substance of the Virgin means that she as mother contributed to him all that any human mother contributes to her child, sin excepted. Through the umbilical cord, he is this particular man, the son of this particular woman, the bearer of the whole previous genetic history of her people and the recipient of innumerable hereditary features. He was a unique genotype precisely because she contributed at least half his chromosomes (as any human mother would). How the rest was contributed remains a mystery. The one certainty is that Mary could not herself have contributed the sex-determining chromosome, Y, which is always provided by the biological father. This chromosome, at least, must have been provided miraculously; and it remains possible that all the chromosomes normally derived from the male parent were provided in this way, the divine act which fertilised the ovum simultaneously creating twenty-three chromosomes complementary to those derived from the mother” (Donald MacLeod, “The Person of Christ,” IVP, p.162).
2. It was a Supernatural Person.
A virgin birth by itself does not mean an invariable incarnation. If God willed he could supernaturally beget a thousand babies. What was significant about this conception was that it was the second person of the godhead who was joined to Mary’s ovum. He left his Father’s home above, so free, so infinite his grace. The Father and Son came together to the gate of heaven and off the Son walked across the clouds as his Father lovingly waved him good-bye. His destination was the virgin betrothed to Joseph. What was special about the baby which Mary bore was this, – “It was the eternal Son of God in respect of his human nature. He was begotten of the Spirit and conceived by the virgin in human nature. The most stupendous fact of all is that this was the begetting, conception, embryonic development, and birth of a supernatural person. Because of this there was no point at which the supernatural was not present. The incarnation was supernatural through and through, because at no point was the supernatural identity of the person suspended.” (John Murray, ibid).
Who is he in yonder stall at whose feet the shepherds fall?
Tis the Lord, O wondrous story, Tis the Lord, the King of glory.
There was no diminishing of the One who was in the beginning, who was with God and who was God. There is no transmutation, and no divestiture. When the apostle John says that they beheld him then it was the glory of the only-begotten of the Father that they were surveying, in other words, he says Jesus of Nazareth was, “God only-begotten who is in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18). So the incarnation meant addition not subtraction. God the Son, remaining the immutable second person of the godhead, joined to himself the human nature of one particular man, the true biological son of Mary, who married a carpenter, who lived in Nazareth, in whose home the God-man, Christ-Jesus, grew up. “The incarnation means that the Son of God took human nature in its integrity into his person with the result that he is both divine and human, without any impairment of the fulness of either the divine or the human” (John Murray, ibid).
3. It was a Supernatural Preservation.
There was such a preservation at the end of his life when his body lay in the grave, but God would not allow his Holy Child Jesus to putrefy. There was the alarm of Mary and Martha at the opening of the tomb of their brother after three days, that his body would be stinking. But there was an intervention of God concerning the corpse of the Lord Jesus. The tomb was new and clean; no stench of death; a fine mausoleum for the Prince of Life. So too when he lay in the womb of Mary, our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man, tinier than a full stop, then, when all other men must say, “In sin did my mother conceive me … I was born in sin and shapen in iniquity,” he could never say those words, even as at the end of not a single day did he need to confess his sins to God. At his conception there was somehow a preservation from any taint of sin, from that contamination that would have otherwise proceeded from Mary. His was a humanness without sin. His was not a humanness without temptation, nor a humanness lived out in a sanitised spiritual environment, but from his conception there was no prenatal sin – whatever that may be – and thenceforth, after his first breath, no propensity to sin, no affinity with sin, and no stain of sin ever upon him, though he were bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh. He was the Word of God who had become the Lamb of God without spot and without blemish. The little Lord Jesus no crying he made, that is, no crying which was characterised by petulance and anger and greed and attention-seeking and boredom and pride – as every other baby makes. He was not like any other baby, this virgin-born Messiah.
Four Meditations from John Owen September 26, 2023
This is a reprint of an article that was first published in the Banner of Truth magazine, July – August 1968. His words remain searching and pertinent today. * * * The Value of the Gospel No men in the world want help like them that want the Gospel. A man may want liberty, and […]
Peacocks and Rutterkins: Calvin the Colloquial Communicator August 31, 2023
John Calvin is thought of, principally, as a theologian. Of course, he was that. But, as Andrew W. Blackwood once told me, in his day he was first of all considered a preacher. Too few of his sermons have been preserved.1 English translations are mainly in 16th century English!2 Nevertheless, the more I read them, […]