One of the unique features concerning the birth of Jesus was his conception in the womb of his mother while she was still a virgin. Yet the Bible gives no detailed reasons for this. The Gospel writers clearly taught it, but, without attempting to explain its mysteries, they pointed to the goal God had in view. Through Jesus Christ, God became a human being for the purpose of saving human beings (Matt 1:21-23; Luke 2:11,29-32; cf. Heb 2:14-15).

Words translated ‘virgin’

In the Old Testament there are two Hebrew words translated ‘virgin’. In the New Testament only one Greek word is translated ‘virgin’, though that Greek word is used as the equivalent of either of the Hebrew words. Of the two Hebrew words, the more commonly used is the one that refers to a young woman who had never had sexual intercourse (Gen 24:16; Lev 21:14; Judg 21:12; 2 Sam 13:2,18; cf. 2 Cor 11:2). Israelites considered it important that a woman be a virgin at the time of her marriage, and their law set out penalties for the loss of virginity before marriage (Exod 22:16-17; Deut 22:13-19; see ADULTERY; FORNICATION). Prophets sometimes used the word poetically, particularly in relation to nations and cities. The word indicated a variety of qualities such as purity, honour, privilege and safety against attack (Isa 37:22; 47:1; Jer 14:17; 31:4; 46:11). The other Hebrew word is less specific and has been translated by such words as virgin, maiden, girl and young woman. It refers to any young woman of marriageable age. In some contexts the word may imply virginity, but in other contexts the question of virginity is irrelevant (Gen 24:43; Exod 2:8; Ps 68:25; Prov 30:19; Song of Songs 1:3; cf. Matt 25:1; Acts 21:9; 1 Cor 7:25-38).

Isaiah used this latter word when giving the Judean king Ahaz a sign of promise at the time of a combined Israelite-Syrian attack on Judah. He promised Ahaz that God would be with Judah. This divine protection would become so evident over the following months, that in thanks to God one of the Judean young women would name her new-born child Immanuel, meaning ‘God with us’. Not only would this be a sign to reassure the royal household, but before the child was three years old Israel and Syria would be powerless to trouble Judah further (Isa 7:10-16). When the virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus, Matthew saw this as a greater fulfilment of the words that Isaiah spoke to Ahaz. But the word translated ‘young woman’ in the promise to Ahaz was ambiguous. Isaiah used the word with its broader meaning of ‘young woman’, but Matthew used it with its narrower meaning of ‘virgin’. In the time of Ahaz, God promised to be with his people and protect them; but with the birth of Jesus, God came physically to live with human beings in their world (Matt 1:23; John 1:14).

Miraculous conception of Jesus

God is the source of all life. Usually he begins the process of human life in the womb of a woman through using a human father, but when he himself entered the stream of human life he began the process miraculously, by the work of his Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary (Matt 1:18,20; Luke 1:26-35; see MIRACLE). However, the development of the child in Mary’s womb and the birth of the child at the appointed time seem to have been normal. The child, though without a human father, was fully human (Luke 1:42; 2:6-7; Gal 4:4). The virgin conception of Jesus shows that Jesus was not some ordinary person to whom God added deity, but a unique person whose existence came about through God’s direct activity.

God did not make a human being into God; he became a human being. Jesus was not someone whom God adopted as his Son; he was actually God’s Son. He had existed eternally as the Son of God, and his coming into the world without the function of an earthly father was a clear demonstration of his divine origin (Luke 1:35; John 1:14; see SON OF GOD). Moreover, the direct activity of God in the conception of Jesus ensured that the child would be holy. There could be no chance that sin, which affects everything that people do, could affect him (Luke 1:35; 1 John 3:5). Jesus was the beginning of a new creation, separate from and unspoiled by sin. He was not under the curse of sin, but in the end he bore the sin of others, so that they through him might be part of God’s new creation (2 Cor 5:17,21; Col 3:9-10; Titus 3:4-7).

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