Luke wrote his Gospel so that his readers would be certain about the events he described—and the historical fact of the virgin birth is no exception. In this sermon from Luke 2:6-7, Alistair Begg explains that the miraculous conception of the Lord Jesus is fundamental to the Christian faith. It is appropriate that God would enter His world in a supernatural way, just as it is essential that the Redeemer would be born of a woman yet perfect in holiness.
We’re going to turn again tonight, as we did this morning, to the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel. And for those of you who weren’t present this morning, we plan to use these opening verses, the twenty verses of Luke 2, as the template, as it were, for the balance of our Advent studies; and that will involve the following Sunday mornings now, along with this evening, and then, of course, Christmas Eve. Whether we will be able to stay within the passage for all of these things, including the Christmas concert, I haven’t fully decided yet. But at least we’re here for now.
“In those days”—2:1—“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
Father, we come to you tonight as needy people. We come to you as individuals who find it relatively easy to wander off the narrow pathway of living for and living by the Lord Jesus Christ. We confess this to you, and we acknowledge that we are in need of fresh encounters with your grace and with your goodness. And we believe that you have ordained this day in measure in order that, in the fellowship of one another and in obedience to the truth of your Word, we might then find a spirit of renewal within our hearts, that our temptation to doubt may be replaced with fresh convictions of your truth, that our fearfulness may be overturned by the awareness again of the fact that perfect love casts out all fear, and that our lack of understanding may be replaced with a renewed conviction concerning the truth of the Bible.
So we pray now that, as we look to it before we share in Communion together, for the help of the Holy Spirit, so that nothing will be said in error nor in such a manner as to detract from our ability to understand and to believe the good news that is here for us in the Scriptures. We commend all who gather similarly at this time, in the various time zones of our nation and in the various nations of the world, some who’ve already ended their day and others who will soon be rising to a new one. For our fellowship with all of these we give you our humble thanks. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, this morning we sought to deal with the first five verses, leaving behind, in the section that we read, verses 6 and 7: “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
Now, of course, we recognize that behind the straightforward statement that we have just read in those verses, there is a quite staggering announcement, which is, in your Bible, probably open to you; if not, you’ll just need to turn back one page. And that is the section that begins at the twenty-sixth verse, beginning, “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed.” And we said this morning that betrothal was a legally binding relationship between a man and a woman, that they had not entered into the enjoyment of marriage in all of its detail, but the only way that they could now be separated from one another was by the formal proceedings of divorce. And so, Mary is this individual. She’s “betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David,” and this angel has come and has greeted her.
Now, we made much this morning of the sort of mundane and unremarkable way in which, in these seven verses here in chapter 2, Luke introduces what is really the most significant event in all of human history: the breaking into time of God himself in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. And having made much of that, and purposefully so, I want at the same time to acknowledge the fact that we did start at 2:1. We did make reference to 1:1–4. But no sooner have you got to the end of that long introductory sentence in Greek which comprises the first four verses; no sooner have we said to one another that Luke introduces himself to us as a very punctilious historian, as somebody who is very, very careful to do his investigation in keeping with his background and as a physician and so on—we have made much of the fact that the narrative that he creates, he has compiled as a result of all of this careful investigation, and that he has done so, so as to provide sufficient basis for the individual Theophilus and others like Theophilus to come to an absolute certainty regarding who Jesus is, why Jesus has come, what he has done, and why it all actually matters—now, no sooner has Luke done that than we are immediately ushered into an environment that is filled with supernatural occurrences.
You immediately find that when you move from the fourth verse to the fifth verse of chapter 1, the sights and sounds that are there for us in the incidents—and there are four of them that he records—those sights and sounds may on first reading provide—as least for some of us, the cynics among us—we may find ourselves saying, “These provide more of a basis for curiosity than they provide a basis for certainty.” Because the whole balance of chapter 1, reading into chapter 2, concerns these supernatural things.
Let me just point it out to you. In 1:15, introducing the Lord: “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. … He must[n’t] drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” And how many people have you heard of being filled with the Holy Spirit still in their mother’s womb? That is a supernatural occurrence. That is an unusual occurrence. When you go to the thirty-fifth verse: “And the angel answered her,” when she says (and we’ll come back to this) “How is all this supposed to happen?”—“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Supernatural.
Verse 41, in the visit between Mary and Elizabeth, entering the house of Zechariah, she greets Elizabeth, “and when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit,” and they began to have this amazing conversation. Now, many of you have been visiting your friends, or even your cousins or your sisters, when you both discover that you were pregnant. But I would be able to say, I think with a measure of conviction, that none of you have encountered this kind of thing. If you have done, you should probably come and talk with us at the end, and we can pray with you before you go home. No, it is a supernatural thing.
And the same thing is true in verse 67. I’m simply highlighting in each of these four incidents the drama that unfolds. “And his father,” that is, “Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and [he] prophesied.” The commentator Wilcock, in a wonderful sentence, says when we read this, it’s as though we arrived at an international airport to find all of the signs in Hebrew. Because in actual fact, what we’re introduced to is the world of the Jew. We are introduced to an entirely Jewish context. Admittedly, in chapter 2 we are considering Caesar Augustus and the impact of the Roman Empire, but in the balance of chapter 1 and leading from it there into chapter 2, the environment is Jewish. And if we think about it, it should be Jewish. The environment is the environment of the Old Testament.
And in each of the incidents that are recorded for us as Luke goes into his Gospel, Luke is making it absolutely clear that there was at this time a small group of faithful folks who had been reading their Bibles, who had reflected on the silence of the intertestamental period, and who now were keenly anticipating that God was going to break into their environment in a way that had never happened before and would never happen again. When you get to chapter 2, you are introduced, for example, to Simeon. And what was Simeon doing? Simeon was “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” Anna, lovely Anna, what was she doing? She was there, and she was “waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Now, when you realize that this is the case, you realize that from one perspective, the narrative immediately appears to be almost so remote as to be conceivably irrelevant. I’m thinking now in terms of you talking to your friends tomorrow morning on the lines that we spoke about this morning. And you say to them, “We were studying Luke’s Gospel yesterday, about the birth of Jesus. It’s recorded in seven verses,” and so on. And they said, “Oh, you must tell me about that sometime.” And you said, “No, I’d like to tell you about it right now.” And they said, “Well, why don’t we just look at what it says?” And they open a Bible, and they’re with you, and they say, “Well, this doesn’t seem to have any relevance at all to me. What is this about? A bunch of supernatural events and Jewish people jumping around and doing all manner of things? I thought you said it was very up to date. I thought you said it was very relevant.”
No, from one perspective, it appears remote and irrelevant. And it appears so dramatically supernatural as to be quite incredible—i.e., beyond belief. And, of course, you know that there are those who do what I do, and they have concluded a long time ago, when they were theological students, that the whole thing is actually beyond belief. And so they don’t believe it themselves, and they don’t teach it to anybody else. And they decided that the best way that they can make it acceptable to everybody is to make it as believable as possible, and the way to make it as believable as possible is to get anything that is supernatural out of it and to get anything that smacks of Judaism out of it as fast as you possibly can.
But, no, no. Luke doesn’t do that. Luke offers these events not as poetical speculation but as pure history. The reason I belabor this is because I want you to understand this. What we said this morning was that Luke is operating as a historian. You go back to chapter 1, and you come to this narrative, which is full of Jewish elements, and it is full of supernaturalism. The temptation is to say, “Oh, he must only have started to operate as a historian in chapter 2, because he clearly wasn’t in chapter 1.” No. He was operating as a historian from the very beginning. And so, when he reports these events, he reports them not as imaginative stories or poetic speculation, but he reports them as they are: real history. “These things really happened,” says Luke, “and you have my credibility to deal with, insofar as I have introduced you to these things and in that way.”
You see, to say that something is supernatural is not akin to saying that it is apocryphal or that it is mythological—that these incidents don’t actually possess the kind of speculative material that you will find when people talk to you about the fact that there were lots of other gospels. How do your unbelieving friends know that there were lots of other gospels? They never even read the jolly Gospels that we have, let alone all the other gospels. But they actually know about all the other gospels. Why is that? Because it’s customary in Newsweek—if there’s even a Newsweek left—it’s customary for people to say, “You know, if you really want to understand the Bible, you need the Gospel of Thomas,” or “You need the Gospel of So-and-So.” These many, many gospels. Again, we’re back to The Da Vinci Code all over again: “This is where it’s all found.”
If you read any of those things, they are full of speculative stuff—vast chunks of it. Wee bits that are akin to the truth of the four Gospels, but full of all other elements. You don’t find that in Luke. You don’t find that in any of the Synoptics. The kind of thing that emerged in those gospels… Because the writing of the Gospels spawned a big sort of gospel-writing craze. That’s what happened. They said, “Oh, we could write a gospel as well. Why don’t we write a gospel?” And someone says, “Yeah, let’s get together and write a gospel.” And so they began to. And the further they were removed from the eyewitness reports, which was the source for Luke—the farther they got removed from the eyewitness reports, the crazier they got, and the easier it was for them to say things in their gospels that clearly were unverifiable. That’s why, if you’re going to be reading gospels, just read the Gospels that you have in the Bible, and you can get to the other stuff later. All right?
Whether we like it or not, the story of Jesus is filled with angels, with predictions, with miracles. And all this angelic stuff and all this supernatural stuff is an intrinsic part of the gospel. It’s not superfluous. It’s not supplemental. It is foundational. It is central. It is, as I say, intrinsic to it. And we ought to understand it to be so, because, after all, the story of the gospel is supernatural in its entirety. It is the story of the creator of the universe breaking into time, revealing himself as Savior and as King.
And the Jewishness of it ought to be obvious to us. Because it was at this time and in this place and in this way that God chose to come. I remember—and I always mention this, and I never check it, and then I always have to say, “I don’t know whether it was Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar,” and I still don’t. But you remember in that song, you know: “You could have come,” says the writer, “you could have come at a much better time,” you know, when there was, when there was Facebook, and you could tweet and everything like that. “You could have come at a far better time than you did. It was a very strange time for you to come, and such a strange place for you to come, and such a strange group of people that you came to.” That’s exactly right: “He came to his own, and his own received him not. To as many as received him, to them he gave power to become the children of God, even to those who believed in his name.”
The good news that reaches out to the entire world, that breaks the boundaries of the nations, is news that was delivered in the crucible of Judaism. And that’s why when you read the opening chapter of Luke, it’s Jewish. It should be Jewish. And that’s why when a Gentile in the twenty-first century turns to a book that is essentially Jewish concerning the first century, they’re going to need help—they’re going to need your help—to make sure that they understand that what Luke has written here he affirms not as a speculative theory, not as a philosophy, not as an idea, not as a religion to be introduced, but as factual events which took place in a moment in time.
So when we read that “she brought forth her firstborn son” and she “laid him in a manger,” it’s because she did. And when we read that what was conceived in her was by the Holy Spirit, it’s because it was. You can’t do keyhole surgery on the Bible. The doctrine of the virgin birth is not like your appendix, that, apparently, we can remove without it having a detrimental impact on the rest of our physical being. The doctrine of the virgin birth is at the very heart and core of the Christian message. And it is that which we need to pay attention to in the remaining moments that we have.
Yeah. I’m going to deal with the immensity of the virgin birth in a few moments! Yeah. I hear myself speak, I make myself smile. But let’s be very clear: Christianity is actually both irrelevant and ultimately meaningless apart from the almighty, miraculous intervention of God in time; the story of Christianity has no basis, it has no substance, it has no relevance, it ultimately has no meaning at all. And God comes to meet us not at the top of the towers that we have created on the strength of our investigation or our mysticism, but he comes now to meet us in a cattle shed in Bethlehem. He comes to meet us on a Roman cross in Calvary. He comes to meet us in the extremity of our individual lives.
Now, actually—that’s a very long introduction, and I just have two observations.
First of all, to note that in verses 6 and 7, which are really our verses, we have the record of what is a straightforward arrival. A straightforward arrival: “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth.” That’s pretty straightforward. Many of us have been around for that kind of thing, and Joseph was there, admittedly in the company of an interesting group of characters—not all of them Homo sapiens. Because we’re told that there was actually no place for them to be secured in the normal accommodations that would have been represented at the time. Presumably, the registration process had drawn many more people than they had anticipated, and those who were not the early birds would not be able to have access to the best accommodations.
And although we might think that any meaningful society would have made room for a lady in extremity like this, apparently that was not the case. There was no room for Jesus to be born. That, of course, gives us an opportunity to preach a whole run of sermons, which I will leave for you to preach. But it is of interest, is it not, that many in Bethlehem missed the whole event because of their response? Just as many in the city of Cleveland will miss the whole event once again as we consider the coming of Jesus, because they basically have no room for a consideration of Christ.
So he’s born in a stable. He’s born where animals were kept. Justin Martyr in AD 150, in the heart of the second century, identified the birthplace of Jesus as having been a cave. Subsequently, in the middle of the fourth century, Constantine the Great built a church over the framework of that cave. Later on, Justinian reworked that original church. Actually, it was pretty well torn down, and another one was built approximately sixteen hundred years ago. And if you have gone to Bethlehem and to the Church of the Holy Nativity, you will have been able to see what is essentially the same building over what is claimed to be the same place—the significance, of course, being that in the birth of Jesus, the Son of God became Son of Man. In his birth, he who was rich for our sakes became poor, that we through his poverty might become rich. We don’t really need to do too much with that. It is a straightforward arrival.
It is, as we said this morning, not the birth of Jesus which is so remarkable but the conception of Jesus which is remarkable. And to that we turn as our second and final point. Because if you have a straightforward arrival recorded in verses 6 and 7, you have a staggering announcement that comes back in chapter 1 and beginning in verse 26.
And we’ve looked at this already, and the arrival of the angel. The angel is dispatched in order to make sense of what is going on. Without the angel to actually speak, then all that they would be left with would be conjecture. We’re going to see the same thing with the shepherds. What are the shepherds going to make of all of this unless the angel explains? The angel has to say to the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid.” The reaction’d be, “What do you mean? We’ve been out here a lot of times. This is the first time we saw you characters. What’s going on?” “Well, let me tell you what’s going on.” Well, we’ll deal with that later on. But you find the same thing.
In fact, I almost did a little series under the heading “Fear Not.” Because the “fear not” comes again and again. It’s the same word that is given to Zechariah, it’s the same word that’s given to Mary, it’s the same word that’s given to Joseph, and it is the same word that is given to the shepherds. Reflecting on that and listening to myself now, maybe I should have done that as a series. But anyway, we’re here now, so we continue.
Verse 28: “He came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’” So far, so good. “But,” verse 29, “she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” That’s fair enough, isn’t it? You got an angelic visitation, says, “The Lord is with you.” And so she says, “Wow, I wonder just exactly what that means.” So, verse 30: “The angel said to her, ‘Do[n’t] be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.’” She’s going to be entrusted with the privilege of bearing this child. And in verse 31: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and [you’ll] bear a son, and you [will] call his name Jesus. He will be great,” he “will be called the Son of the Most High. … The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’” Wow! Things are hotting up, aren’t they? “First, an angel shows up. Then the angel says I’m going to have a baby. Then the angel says, ‘The baby you’re going to have will actually rule the entire universe.’” That’s quite a morning, isn’t it? Before you’ve even had your coffee.
Mary doesn’t seem to be staggered by any of that. What’s the question she asks? No, verse 34, she asked the how question: “How?” “How will this be?” Now, of course, the answer would have been, “Well, you know, you get married, you have a baby.” But no, that’s not the answer. “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” “I can’t have a baby.” So, it’s a sensible question. It’s the only realistic question, isn’t it? And here we are at the very heart of the Christian story.
Answer, verse 35: the Holy Spirit. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” In the Greek there is no article. There is no “the.” In the Greek, it’s just “Holy Spirit.” “Holy Spirit will come upon you.” And then it is articulated: “And the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” This, again, is very, very Jewish. We don’t have time to work our way back through it, but, for example, you will remember that in the Old Testament—classically, in the wanderings of the children of Israel—God led them by a pillar of fire and by a pillar of cloud. And at the end of Exodus 40, you have this symbol of the divine presence of God in a cloud. You have the same thing when you go into the book of Numbers 9:15. As I was writing that in my notes, I said to myself, “How fascinating is it that Apple has the iCloud—that you’re able to flip all this stuff into ‘the cloud,’ of all things?” As if somehow or another… And then you say to yourself, “Do you know how much information is in that cloud? How did that cloud get so clever? How can they be tracking so much information?” Man, constantly looking to see if they can’t invade the provinces that are exclusive to divinity.
How’s this going to happen? Well, God is going to do this: “You’ll be overshadowed, and the child that will be born will be called holy.” In other words, the conception is going to be supernatural. And in his humanity, he will be revealed not only as divine but also as holy. Again, that is a very Old Testament statement. And when Paul picks it up, when he writes—remember, in the Gospels, he’s revealed; in the Epistles, he’s explained—you remember in Galatians 4, when Paul is working through the theology of the incarnation, he says in Galatians 4, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” He is explaining just exactly what has happened and why it has happened. He’s pointing out the fact that is was absolutely necessary for the Redeemer to be born of a woman, so that he should be of the same nature as those whom he came to save. Man dying for man.
And it was equally imperative that the Redeemer should be perfectly holy, because no sinful person could ever effect reconciliation for the sins of others. That’s why you have Cur Deus Homo, the explanation that he had to be God, he had to be man. And as the early Christians hammered out the implications of this, they came to the convictions that are then affirmed for us in the early creeds: identifying the wonder of it all, bowing before the mystery of it all, unprepared to step back from the clarity of it all, adopting and affirming the fact that he is very God and very man. And all of this is unfolding here—in, of all places, a stable, in a backwater province of the Middle East, to a slip of a girl and her betrothed, a fellow by the name of Joseph.
Do you have a problem with this? Do you have a problem with the idea that God would supernaturally invade? I wonder. I’m not gonna say that it’s the easiest thing that you have to deal with in the Bible, but I agree with my friend David Robertson when he says, “If human beings can [manufacture] a situation whereby a woman can become pregnant without the necessity [of] sexual intercourse, why should we consider it impossible for [the] Almighty God to do so?” Right?
But people say, “It can’t be. Because virgin births don’t happen. And since virgin births don’t happen, this one didn’t happen.” End of conversation. That’s how it goes, since the days of David Hume. That’s how he dealt with miracles. He was a Scotsman. He didn’t like the idea of miracles. And so he just decided that there weren’t any miracles, and he wouldn’t ever have to deal with them. Well, the argument is circular, isn’t it? Is our argument circular? Well, it may be in the way we present it, but in actual fact, what does the Christian do?
Well, this is what we need to do, and I’ll leave this with you as we draw things to a close. What we’re doing is we’re starting from the evidence as it is presented to us in the Bible. Okay? So we read the Bible, and we start off, and we discover that a man by the name of Luke says, “I’m telling you this really happened.” We then read the Bible, and we apply the same objectivity and selectivity to the understanding of the text as we do to the reading of any other genre of literature. In other words, there is no special way to read the Bible. There is a special help that is promised by the Holy Spirit, but there is no peculiar way to read the Bible. We’re supposed to read the Bible and discover where verbs are and adjectives are and so on. We read it in its context.
And as we read it, we are confronted, then, by the emergence of this Jesus of Nazareth, and we’re forced to say, “How do we account for this? How do we account for this? What is the most probable explanation?” And then, on the strength of what appears to be the most probable explanation, we then consider the various elements in it. And for one, I don’t believe that it is incongruous in the slightest that the almighty God should both enter as well as exit the world in an entirely supernatural way. In fact, it surely would be bizarre if the almighty creator of the universe did not both arrive and depart in a way that made mere mortals scratch their heads and say, “Wow! I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
And then the work of the Holy Spirit in illumining the page to us and bringing it home to our understanding, opening our eyes to its truth, showing us not only that it happened but why it happened, not only that he is the one promised from all of eternity but that the promise has been fulfilled in his death and in his resurrection, and then affirming for us the absolute necessity of our responding to that in repentance and in faith.
In other words, the work of conversion is the work of God—the God who said to Nicodemus, a religious guy, “You know, you’ve got a lot of really good questions, but I’m gonna tell you something: unless a man is born again, or born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” In other words, “You’re stuck, Nicodemus. Unless a man is born from above, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” In other words, it’s gonna take a supernatural invasion of God into the life of a man to bring them to living faith, along the lines of the supernatural invasion of God into the womb of Mary in order to bring to us the Redeemer who provides the salvation which the Bible affirms each of us so desperately requires—a salvation that we rehearse when we break bread together, as we’ll do in a moment or two.
Father, thank you that the Bible is really worth the time put in to searching the Scriptures to see if these things are so. Forgive us, Lord, when we are more adept at the actuarial tables or at the knowledge of where our football teams are in the scheme of things than we are in the awareness of the wonder of your love to us in Jesus as revealed in the Bible. So stir up our hearts again, we pray, as we draw our day to a close, as we break bread together, as we rejoice in your love, and as we thank you for sending your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to be our Savior. And it’s in his name we pray. Amen.
 See 1 John 4:18.
 Luke 1:14–15 (ESV).
 Michael Wilcock, The Message of Luke: The Saviour of the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1979), 38.
 Luke 2:25 (ESV).
 Luke 2:38 (ESV).
 Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, “Superstar,” Jesus Christ Superstar (1970). Paraphrased.
 John 1:11–12 (paraphrased).
 Luke 2:7 (KJV).
 See Matthew 1:20.
 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 70.
 See 2 Corinthians 8:9.
 Luke 2:10 (paraphrased).
 See Luke 1:13, 30; Matthew 1:20; Luke 2:10.
 See Exodus 40:34–38.
 Luke 1:35 (paraphrased).
 Galatians 4:4–5 (ESV).
 David Robertson, “Turning Christmas into Mythmas: Why We Shouldn’t Ditch the Virgin Birth,” Christian Today, December 22, 2014, https://www.christiantoday.com/article/turning.christmas.into.mythmas.why.we.shouldnt.ditch.the.virgin.birth/44674.htm.
 John 3:3 (paraphrased).
 See Acts 17:11.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.