December 20, 1998
The virgin birth is a stumbling block to many sophisticated people. As Alistair Begg reminds us, though, the singular event of God becoming human was bound to be extraordinary, and believers should be prepared to defend its truth. At the nativity, God chose poor and humble people, not the rich and powerful, to accomplish the incarnation. This reality invites us to reexamine our whole way of seeing both the world and ourselves.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Father, thank you for the privilege, now, of being able to turn to the Bible and to discover in its pages the fact that you have chosen to speak to us, that you are God and that you are not silent. Were it not for the fact that you have spoken, then we would know little of you, save as what can be gleaned from our awareness of the creation. We thank you that you have spoken to us verbally and propositionally and in a plenary fashion in the pages of the Bible, to which we now turn. We have no appetite save that which you create. We have no expectation save that which you engender. We have no ability to think or reason, believe or respond, except you come. So come, O God, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Those of you who are regularly with us will know that we have recently begun a series of studies in the Gospel of Luke and that those same studies bring us this morning, quite helpfully, to the passage that we read previously in the first chapter of the Gospel, beginning with the twenty-sixth verse.
And this particular passage contains Luke’s account of what we refer to as the virgin birth. We might more accurately refer to it as the virgin conception, because if you think about it, there was nothing that was unnatural about the birth of Jesus as it is recorded for us. He came in the normal fashion. He was delivered in the way that any healthy child would be delivered. His birth was, if you like, entirely natural. It was instead his conception which was supernatural.
And this passage of Scripture combines with Matthew’s record, which we have in Matthew chapter 1, to confront us with a truth which is, frankly, awesome, mind-stretching, and mind-boggling. And it is this: that Jesus was born of a human mother without any human father; that he became flesh through being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is as succinct a summary as I can provide of the virgin birth, or the virgin conception, whichever phraseology you may choose to use to describe it.
Now, having said that, we want to immediately remind ourselves of the fact that Luke has already told us, in the third verse, that his Gospel is the product of careful investigation. Eyewitness accounts had been given to him. He paid careful attention to them—the phraseology suggests that he scrutinized them—and on the basis of his having done so, he then determined, under the direction of God the Holy Spirit, that it was incumbent upon him to provide what he refers to there in the third verse as “an orderly account.”
Now, I mention this purposefully, because here we have someone who was a doctor, a physician—someone who by his nature would not be the kind of person to pay scant attention to detail, especially when it came to the matter of physical birth, etc. And it is this individual who, in writing his Gospel, clearly understands himself to be reporting fact, albeit a quite staggering fact, but nevertheless, fact just the same. And there is no notion whatsoever that these Gospel writers were somehow dabbling in the realm of myth. The biblical teaching as it is provided for us on the subject of the virgin conception is not marginal. It is of fundamental importance.
Now, I make much of this in my introduction—which, incidentally, will be a very long introduction this morning. For those of you who have come somewhat sleepy, this was a bad morning to arrive. For those of you who, like me, uncharacteristically slept in, this is a unique challenge. For those of you who came thinking that there would be a little blessed thought about Christmas and you could get on your way, you may be regarding me as a blessed nuisance within another five or six minutes. This is fairly demanding material, but it is the material that is before us. I say that to forewarn you.
Now, I take time in this introduction because there are those who have denied and continue to deny the virgin conception as being a fact. They pronounce it to be both wrong and unnecessary, and they suggest to us that if we—that is, those who would uphold any measure of Christian faith—if we are endeavoring to make an impact with thinking men and women, then we’re going to have to abandon all the pieces of the New Testament—indeed, the Bible in total—we need to abandon all the difficult and unbelievable parts so as to be able to offer to our friends a more believable version of Christianity. So, let’s have a Christianity that simply expresses news about love (which is, of course, part of the biblical record), which tells us of the nature of the Sermon on the Mount and turning the other cheek (which is, of course, a part of Christ’s instruction)—but it all, then, stops with that. It is all very this-worldly. It is all very acceptable, understandable, absorbable. And, they say, this is the way to make a great gain among the ranks of those who are agnostic and unbelieving.
Now, in urging us in that direction—and they are fairly urgent in their insistent approach—they are working on the basis of two presuppositions. They have two things in the back of their minds which lead them to the conclusions to which they come.
First, that there exists the theological equivalent of precision surgery. Now, I’m taking this phrase “precision surgery” to mean all surgery. I can’t imagine imprecise surgery. But I wonder if “precision surgery” doesn’t make particular reference to things like keyhole surgery, where they cut a little hole in you, and then they go in and remove the offending article without doing anything detrimental to the rest of the body and leaving everything intact once you get up and on your feet again. So, for example, they can go in and get your gallbladder, they can go in and get your appendix, they can go in and get a number of things, and you’ll still be okay when they’ve patched you up and sent you on your way. These theologians say we can do the same thing with the Christian message: we cut a little keyhole, we go in, we get the virgin birth, we pull it out, excise it, remove it, put it on the side, without doing anything detrimental to Christianity at all. That’s their claim.
Secondly, they presuppose that by eliminating logical or metaphysical difficulties, we thereby create a more acceptable version of Christianity, which our friends and neighbors will be quick to grab hold of.
Now, both of these presuppositions are clearly questionable, and they need to be challenged. However, traditionally, evangelical Christianity has had a mediocre track record of challenging such notions—mediocre in scrutinizing the credentials of Christianity. As a result, those of us who would be most forceful in our convictions—most clear, as we would put it, in our beliefs, most willing to share them—find ourselves, when confronted by this kind of approach, this kind of skepticism, answering our critics not with reasoned thought but largely simply with clichés or with affirmations, so that we think that we have ended the conversation admirably to be able to say, “Well, you may think that, but I don’t,” or “That may be your view, but that’s not what I believe, and I know what I believe.”
Uh-huh? So do you expect your agnostic friend to be impressed by that affirmation? Just somehow or another go, “Oh, well then, if that’s the case, of course, forget everything I just said; let me just get right alongside you”? It doesn’t happen! We do not win people over to Christianity by dismissing their arguments fatuously or by ignoring their problems easily. Our friends and our neighbors have significant questions about the nature of Christianity, and understandably so—and not least of all when it comes to the Christmas period and they are confronted, because they can think and read the Bible, by the staggering notion that Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit without the normal process of insemination and that this conception was virgin in its nature, and thereby arrived in our time, place, planet this incarnate Son of God. The friends and neighbors say, “I need to talk to you about this. We’re going to have to have a discussion.”
So that those among our friends and neighbors who are wrestling with these kind of doubts and questions and uncertainties… And some of you are here this morning. I know you are. I’m not going to identify you, because I don’t know who you are, but it would be a strange group if there weren’t some who are saying, “Boy, I’m glad he started like this, because this has been bedeviling me for the last thirty-five Christmases. I just kind of put it on the side of the plate like a bone from fish, and I eat the vegetables and carry on. But I’ve never really been able to get to the problem.”
Why is it? What is it that produces this kind of mindset that questions and doubts? Because it always hasn’t been true in the framework of church. Over the years, it hasn’t always been this way.
Well, those who reason in this fashion are largely in the lineage of a Scottish philosopher whose name will be known to most—namely, David Hume. And if you remember your Philosophy 101, you will remember that Hume is the father of those who reasoned as follows: before accepting that an event took place in the past, we need to be persuaded that it still takes place in the present. So his empiricism demanded that you had to be able to verify an event on the basis of the fact that it happened again and again and again and again. So if there was an event that did not, could not, reproduce itself, it wasn’t an event at all.
That’s why scientists get so frustrated with unique events. Because those of you who spend your days in labs spend your days trying to reproduce the same set of circumstances over and over and over again so that on the basis of repetition you may make deductions. If you then add to that the notion that if an act by definition is unrepeatable, it is unverifiable, then you end up saying there is no virgin conception and there cannot possibly be a resurrection. Because both of those events by definition are unique, and they are unrepeatable.
Now, Christianity insists that the virgin conception, virgin birth, was a unique historical event. If virgin conception was a regular event seen by obstetricians on a weekly basis, then there would be no difficulty in accepting the notion in relationship to Jesus of Nazareth, would there? Everybody would say, “Oh! Oh, here’s another virgin conception. That’s the seventh one I’ve seen this year! My friends over in the West Side, they’ve seen a lot more than this.” If that were the case, people would say, “Well, fine, so there was a virgin conception. What’s the big deal about that?”
But it is the very fact that there aren’t those things that makes it such a big deal. It is—to describe Christ’s arrival in this way—to make much of the fact of who this Jesus is. Without the virgin conception, his arrival would not stand out. Without it, he would not be different. Without it, there would be nothing in his coming that would say anything substantially about the nature of Christ.
Oh, you could say, “Well, he was born of a Galilean lass.” Yes, but so were others. “Well, he was Jewish.” Yeah, well, so were others. “Well, he didn’t have a very nice place in which to be born.” That’s true for many others as well. So what is the thing that stands out? Where is the fox hidden, as it were, in the covert? Where is the difficulty in the passage that leads us to the conclusion that there is something striking about what’s going on here? It is in this. There is no human explanation for the way in which God became incarnate.
Now, you will note as you read your Bibles, as I hope you do, that the serious treatment that is given to Christ’s supernatural entry and his supernatural exit from the world by the Gospel writers is because these events were totally out of the ordinary. That’s why they’re here. Because Luke, having conducted a careful investigation and listened to the eyewitness reports, having brought his background to bear upon the subject, his understanding of how things work, sits down “to write an orderly account” and here at the very outset of it produces this most mind-boggling of notions. Why? Because it’s a fact.
And at the back end of the life of this Jesus of Nazareth, we have angels standing and him being taken up into heaven. And the angels say, “Why are you standing around bothered about this? He will come back in the same manner as you have seen him go.” So at the end of his days, the people are standing around in total, awesome wonder, and at the arrival of his days on earth, they are standing about in the exact same way. Why would we expect it to be any different?
You see, those who argue against this notion are largely circular in their argument. In other words, they draw their conclusion from their premise. And this is how it goes: “One: virgin conception does not happen. Two: therefore, Jesus was not conceived of a virgin. Three: end of subject.”
Now, don’t fold before that. And don’t fall into the trap of them telling you, when you say, “Well, I think that’s a circular argument,” and they say, “Well, you just believe a circular argument as well, because you start from the fact that virgin conception does happen; therefore, Jesus was conceived of a virgin; therefore, end of subject.” No, we don’t. No, we don’t. We start with this book, the Bible. And we read the Bible as the Word of God. And, of course, now, when we’re talking with an agnostic friend, we’ve got to go back and have a discussion about the Word of God—why we believe it’s the Word of God. But that’s not for this morning, you will be relieved to know.
But starting from the basis of the Bible, we say, “Here is a New Testament document closer to the events of the time of Christ than most historical documents that have been left to us. There are pieces of it in the Rylands museum of Manchester University that are close to the time of Christ—far closer than the events of Caesar Augustus and so on, which are accepted wholesale. And on the basis of this, as Christians, we come to the pages of this book, we find the stuff that is material for us to consider, and we say to ourselves, ‘How are we to account for this? What is the most probable explanation of this?’ And as,” we say to our friends, “we go through this material, much of which is incredible, we recognize that it is not incongruous that a supernatural person, one who is both God and man, should both make his entry and his exit from our time-space capsule in a supernatural way. In fact, what would be incongruous is that the God-man would arrive and leave without any sense of this immense drama.”
And that, you see, is why we must always hold, in Scripture, these issues together. Once you have examined the evidence for the resurrection—once you have put it through the mill of your most stringent trial and you have been forced on your knees to believe that the most reasonable explanation for the birth of the church, the change in the disciples, the change from Saturday to Sunday in worship, the expansion of the church, and everything that has taken place, you say, “The only reasonable explanation for this is that Jesus rose from the dead just as he promised”—as soon as you go there, then you should have no difficulty going back to the virgin conception and saying, “Therefore, for a resurrected Christ who was the creator of the ends of the earth, who created everything ex nihilo, who made everything out of nothing, why would it be any difficulty for him to bring about the arrival of his Son, the incarnate God, by means of a virgin conception?” But no. “Let us,” they say, “keep fashionably silent about these difficult issues.”
It should be a matter of some interest, I think, and worthy of consideration that in the church buildings of Cleveland this morning where men remain unconvinced about the truth of the Bible, unconvinced about the truth of the virgin birth, unconvinced about the truth of the resurrection, unclear about the authority of Scripture, and so on—it should be of some consideration that those buildings are largely devoid of people, and that in these strange enclaves where you get people who are prepared to say, “Yes, I believe—the difficult parts as well as the more understandable parts,” the hallways are crowded, and the pews are packed.
So, resist the invitation to keep fashionably silent about the incarnation, about the atonement, about the resurrection. To do so is to peel the onion down to its virtual nonexistence, to reduce Christianity to some easily swallowable, bland, inoffensive mess of pottage which leaves everybody very, very hungry within an hour and twenty minutes. So they go to worship and they say, “That was good, you know. I liked that! He said that he didn’t really believe in the virgin conception. That makes it a whole lot more understandable to me. I’m feeling much more comfortable with it.” And then in the afternoon hours, as they sit and think about it, they say, “You know, that didn’t make any sense at all.” And what they thought was a splendid meal gave them a dreadful dose of physical gas. Philosophical gas; I beg your pardon. Maybe a little of both. Who knows?
Well, let me hasten on. The essential condition, the Bible says, of receiving light from heaven—on this matter as in any other matter—is not our sophistication but our simplicity. Is not our sophistication but our simplicity. The reason that some of you who sit regularly in worship at Parkside remain in your agnosticism, remain in your unbelief, remain unconvinced is, if I may say so to you kindly, the problem of your sophistication. You are waiting, on your sophisticated plane, to have everything sophisticatedly knocked into line for you in a way that you won’t have to drop down one measure at all in order to embrace this Christ.
I have news for you: said Jesus, “The Lord of the universe has hidden these things from the wise and the learned, and he has revealed them to little children.” He has actually hidden them from the wise and the learned. So the person who says, “Well, you know, I’m far too smart to accept that,” you’re dead right. “You know, I’ve really done too many postgraduate degrees to bow down before some silly notion about a virgin conception.” You’re absolutely right! I hope you’ll keep coming. But you will never come to faith until you bow down on your knees like a child—not in childishness but in childlike trust—and say, “Lord, I believe. Help me with my unbelief.”
So, what we have is a call to wrestle with the historical data and in doing so to consider that progress is made not on the basis of the adult nature of our doubts—although we want to think adultly about things—but it will ultimately be made on the basis of the childlike nature of our trust. And there is no one who provides for us a better illustration of that than Mary herself. In verse 38, when the whole encounter has evolved, she says, “I am the Lord’s servant …. May it be to me as you have said.”
Now, I’ve largely provided you with an introduction to next Sunday morning’s message. And let me tell you where we’ll go when we get there. I actually have four phrases that I would like to use to trace a line through this passage.
As a boy in Scotland, I was never more intrigued when I was sitting listening to someone preach than when the gentlemen in his introduction would say that he was going to preach his whole sermon on one word. And, you know, it would be some word like “be.” “My sermon this morning is on the word ‘be.’” And I’d be like, “Hey!” —you know, nudging my mother—“Hey! This is going to be great. We’ve got a sermon on bees.” “No,” she would say, “Not bees, idiot.” No, she didn’t say that. She didn’t say that. She said, “Now, Alistair, no, no.” She said, “The verb ‘to be.’ Être to some.” And then the guy would start off, and it was nothing close to being about “be” at all. He was gone. But it was a great introduction.
I thought about that this week, because I was going to call this a study in the verb “to be.” And then I remembered sitting out there, and I said “Oh no, don’t do that to yourself. You know how people respond.”
But here are the phrases. Verse 27: “pledged to be married to a man named Joseph.” “Pledged to be.” Verse 31: “You will be with child.” Verse 34: “How will this be …?” And verse 38: “May it be…” So, there’s the outline: “pledged to be…” “You will be…” “How will this be?” “Let it be…” And we’ll finish by singing “Let It Be.” No! No. I haven’t decided that yet. I’m talking with Tampa about it.
If you allow me five minutes, I’d like to do my first point, “pledged to be…” Because then we’ve at least got a chance next time.
The link between the previous verses and this can be understood when we remind ourselves again that this was “an orderly account.” Luke has provided us the news of the annunciation of the one who was to be the herald—namely, John the Baptist. Now he comes to the annunciation of the one of whom the herald would speak—namely, Christ the Messiah. So we have these birth annunciations running alongside one another, contiguously.
He sets it in a context by letting us know that Elizabeth, who was part of the previous narrative, is now in her sixth month of pregnancy. You remember, verse 24 tells us that she had gone into seclusion. Well, apparently, her seclusion is over. She’s now begun to show, and presumably, it’s time to let everybody know. Gabriel, who is the same angel as involved in the last one, is dispatched on his duties. He is to go not to Jerusalem, to the home of a princess, but he is to go to Nazareth, to the home of this young lass who was engaged to the village carpenter.
Now, we could pause here, but we won’t, except for this split second to say: if you and I were designing the way in which the human origins of divinity would unfold, I don’t think many of us would come up with this. We would tend to put it in Washington, DC, or we would have it in London coming down the Mall, and the angel would be going down the Mall and going to the Palace, and everyone would expect that there in the Palace, that would be where the King of the Ages was to be born.
But no. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. Mercifully, his ways are not our ways. He comes to this young lady. He’s “chose[n] the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.” He’s “chose[n] the [little] things of the world to [bring down] the strong.” And here in the incarnation, he does the same thing. He doesn’t go and get somebody who’s really prominent, somebody that everybody knows, someone that everybody says, “Well, I understand that. Perfectly right that she should be the mother of the Messiah! She is such a splendid person. Wonderful family. I loved her grandfather. Such a wealthy man, terrific guy. They’ve been a wonderful, blue-blood family in our area for a long, long time.” None of that. No, the people say, “Mary? Joseph who? Carpenter Joe? Unbelievable. Unbelievable.”
Mary was “pledged,” or betrothed. Means more than engaged. It means that in the presence of witnesses, she had solemnly committed herself to Joseph. The marriage feast had not been eaten, the marriage bed had not been enjoyed, but they were linked together in an indissoluble link that could only be separated by divorce. And in this context, Gabriel comes with his initial greeting. “Greetings,” he says, “you who are highly favored!”
Now, from a very nonangelic perspective, I can envisage him picking up his orders of the day, can’t you? Presumably, they had to do that. I don’t know if they had it written down or what, or if they just got told. But if we go into a kind of nonangelic posture for a moment, here is Gabriel. The buzzer goes. “Okay.” Hum, it rings in his room. Gabriel goes out into the front hall. He gets the assignment: “Here’s your deal. You’re going to Nazareth. There’s a lady called Mary. And you’re to tell her that she’s going to become the mother of the Son of the Most High by a virgin conception.”
Now, if you’ve ever been a delivery boy—and I have—you know that there are some you like to go on, and there’s others that you just don’t like to go on. If you imagine Gabriel standing there, saying to himself, “Goodness gracious! Six months ago, I thought I had a challenge when I went to Zechariah, who was stricken in years and his wife was a write-off, to tell them that they were going to become parents. I thought that was bad! I thought that was incredible! I don’t know what this girl’s going to say when I show up at her door.”
So, when he comes to her and he says, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!”—he’s kind of getting it off to a nice start. Because he knows what she doesn’t know. She’s going to go, “‘Highly favored’? What does that mean?” He knows what it means, but he hasn’t told her yet, because she hasn’t asked.
Isn’t it interesting that he doesn’t lead with the virgin conception? Isn’t it interesting that the only way the virgin conception comes out is a result of the inquiry of Mary? She says, later on, “How is this going to be?” He doesn’t come in and give some great theological, scientific diatribe about the nature of the incarnation. He just comes in and says, “Hey, Mary, you’re highly favored.”
The Latin Vulgate translation, gratia plena, contributes to the complete misunderstanding whereby these words have been translated “Hail, Mary, full of grace.” And some of you have grown up with “Hail, Mary, full of grace” and believing them to mean that Mary was and is a source of grace to other people. But she’s not. That’s not what the angel says.
The angel says, “God’s favor rests upon you, you young, unsuspecting lassie. The Lord is with you.” And his greeting is much more than a simple introduction. Because he uses the language of the Old Testament, which is always used in the Old Testament with reference to a person chosen by God for a special purpose in salvation history. And in such a context—for example, in the story of Gideon—the very phraseology assumes for the individuals God’s resources and God’s protection. And all of that is wrapped up in the wonder of his greeting.
So verse 29 is no surprise: “Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this [would] be.” “Mary was deeply perturbed at these words and wondered what such a greeting could possibly mean.” In other words, she decided to think about it. And I hope that you and I will also think about it—that God will save us from cliché-ridden affirmations; that he will save us from sentimentalism; that he will save us from treating our Bibles as a little promise book whereby we just grab out of it whatever we like, and we leave all the difficult parts behind, and we never mention them to our neighbors and our friends.
Without the difficult parts, there is no Christianity. What use is there in a Christ who is merely naturally born, the son of a Jewish carpenter, who told lots of stories, died, ended his life in a Palestinian grave which was a cul-de-sac of all his religious expectations? What possible use is there in that? No, Christ is far greater and calls us to bow down before him and to worship him.
Let us pray:
O God our Father, we thank you that the Bible has been provided for us that we might read it and, by your enabling, understand it. I pray for each of us on the continuum of faith—some of us who have come reluctantly, invited by a friend, hoping that it would be over sooner than this, and yet you have niggled at our minds, and the thought of this virgin conception is troubling to us. Continue to stir us, Lord, to make us think. Grant that our self-satisfied sophistication may not prevent us from bowing down in childlike trust and admitting that you are God and there is no other who is a Savior and a friend and a guide and a keeper.
For others of us, Lord, who’ve become indolent in relationship to the study of the Bible and the consideration of our faith, who find ourselves consistently jammed in a corner by our pagan friends, make us students of your Word, we pray.
And for each of us, grant that in the midst of all of the purchasing, all of the giving, receiving, and coming and going, grant to us time to think—to think things through—to the place of humble, believing faith in the Lord Jesus.
May grace and mercy and peace from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be the abiding portion of all who believe, today and forevermore. Amen.
 See Matthew 5:39.
 Luke 1:3 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 1:11 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 11:25; Luke 10:21 (paraphrased).
 See Mark 9:24.
 See Isaiah 55:8.
 1 Corinthians 1:27 (NIV 1984).
 See Judges 6:12.
 Luke 1:29 (Phillips).
Copyright © 2023, 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.