This article is part of our weekly series, “Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.” Read more from the series here.
(35) Q. What does it mean that he “was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary”?
A. That the eternal Son of God, who is and remains true and eternal God,took to himself, through the working of the Holy Spirit, from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary,a true human nature so that he might also become David’s true descendant, like his brothers in all things except for sin.
(36) Q. How does the holy conception and birth of Christ benefit you?
A. He is our mediator and, in God’s sight he covers with his innocence and perfect holiness my sin, in which I was conceived.
Incorrectly pronounce New York City’s “Houston Street”—say it like the Texas city—and locals will know you are an outsider. That’s how a shibboleth works, it’s like a password or a secret handshake (see Judges 12:6). If ever there was a religious doctrine suspected to be merely a shibboleth, the Virgin Birth would seem a good candidate. Affirm the Virgin Birth and you are in, a conservative; deny it and you are out, a liberal. And as a test of orthodoxy, affirmation of the Virgin Birth is essential. But we can easily miss the necessity of the Virgin Birth itself.
This is a perfect place for one of the catechism’s many why-does-it-matter follow-up questions. “How does the holy conception and birth of Christ benefit you?” Like all the redemptive events summarized in the Apostles’ Creed, Jesus’ earthly beginning is a historical event that profoundly affects our lives today.
How Should We Understand the Virgin Birth?
The emphasis isn’t so much on the virginity of Mary as on Jesus’s conception as a complete anomaly. We know how human life begins. But Mary’s firstborn wasn’t the product of a sexual union. When Mary was told of God’s plan for her to birth the Messiah, she was understandably confused. “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). So what happened in Mary’s womb?
In the most basic terms, the eternal Son of God took a true human nature. The second person of the Trinity humbled himself by taking on flesh and entering into the human journey in the same place that our journeys began. He became “found in human form” (Phil. 2:8). Jesus wasn’t created. He is “the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15) because of his preeminence over creation. “Firstborn” is a symbolic term. God calls David the “firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth” (Ps. 89:27) though he was the youngest in his family. God would exalt him from his position of lowliness, as he did his own beloved Son.
But while “the Son is uncreated,”[i] Jesus’s human nature is real. He was genuinely born of Mary. He likely resembled Mary (though not Joseph). More important, in Mary’s womb, David’s Lord became his son (Mark 12:35–36). By being truly born of a woman (Gal. 4:4) he became “David’s true descendent” so that all the promises made to David and his heirs would come true in Jesus.
Though the Son is eternal, Jesus’s humanity had a real beginning. But—and this is vital—unlike ours, Jesus’s human journey didn’t start in sin. It’s no coincidence that Scripture contrasts the conception of sinners with the conception of God’s Son. David writes, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). David isn’t suggesting that his conception was uniquely problematic. Instead, he’s recognizing that, because of the first sin, he—along with every other ordinary person—began life broken. Fertilized cells in their mother’s wombs aren’t yet capable of performing sin; but the code for sinning is built into the developing DNA. Not so with Jesus. The Holy Spirit so oversaw his entire earthly journey that he retains “his innocence and perfect holiness.”
It’s okay if we don’t comprehend the incarnation; the most rewarding kind of understanding is often steeped in mystery. Mary knew that what the angel told her was impossible without God (Luke 1:37). The mystery of God being manifested in the flesh is “great indeed” (1 Tim. 3:16). But we know that it’s true and that we will know more of its truth in due time.
Why Does the Virgin Birth Matter?
The Virgin Birth is profoundly relevant, so much more than a theological shibboleth. Paul’s reflection on the mystery of Jesus’s incarnation is literally his short answer to the question of how one should behave in the household of God (1 Tim. 3:14). Here are three ways the Virgin Birth matters:
Jesus experienced and dignified every phase of human development.
There’s no place on the developmental timeline where life is second-rate. The womb is sacred, in part, because God once lived there. No matter how small or weak you are, Jesus was once like you. He pressed through the disorienting phase of adolescence. He crested the peak of physical strength we experience in our twenties. What about old age? As part of his humiliation, and as a fulfillment of Scripture (Isa. 53:8), Jesus never made it to old age on earth. Still, at the cross he experienced the loss of freedom, aches and pains, and the fearful imminence of death older people face. Whatever you’re going through right now, Jesus knows. But he does more than sympathize.
Jesus covers our sin with “his innocence and perfect holiness.”
The gospel isn’t good news because it motivates us to try harder. It’s good news because those who believe it know that all their sins are covered in God’s sight by Jesus. We can’t cancel sin ourselves. We have been sinful since before we drew our first breath. We’re sinful whether asleep or awake. So the good news is that “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3).
Jesus has taken real human flesh into glory.
The life of Jesus is a preview of the life of every believer. We know very little glory now. Life can be a struggle. And that’s what we should expect; Jesus too laid aside his eternal glory during his earthly journey. When Jesus died, by all appearances, his life was over. He’d lost too much blood. He’d taken in too little air. His organs stopped. His skin grew cold. In death, Jesus not only became what we’ll all become one day, but he also summed up the worst weaknesses of humanity. We all experience a little death every day before we truly die.
But in the flesh, Jesus is now in glory. His flesh and blood has changed (1 Cor. 15:50–51; Rev. 1:12–17), but he didn’t stop being human. And if Jesus’s flesh can be translated into heavenly glory, ours can too.
Believe in the Virgin Birth because it’s the teaching of the Bible. Don’t worry if people think you’re crazy; they thought Jesus was crazy for saying that he was God in the flesh (John 10:33). But don’t just believe in the doctrine. As the Nicene Creed teaches, believe in the person “who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man.”
[i] Athanasian Creed, 8.