Gospel of Matthew

Re-thinking the Virgin Birth


The birth of a new child truly is extraordinary, being perhaps the closest thing that our secular, materialistic world has to a miracle: a small cluster of cells, endowed with an innate propensity towards life, is mysteriously transformed by nature’s unseen hand into a living, breathing human being. Witnessing the emergence of an infant – writhing and crying and seeking comfort – out of what was once inert matter is something to behold.

If people of all stripes are prone to seeing faint reflections of the transcendent in such an occurrence, then Christians should surely celebrate the true miracle of the one birth (or more precisely, conception) that could genuinely be called “unique”. Of course, I am referring to the birth of Christ himself, an event that his followers will soon have the privilege of commemorating. Its annual recurrence means that Christians are accorded at least one opportunity each year to formally mark an event of epochal significance. Alongside nativity plays and Christmas hymns will be dramatic readings of Matthew and Luke, as the story of the Christ-child coming into this world is rehearsed through song and word and sign. For many, it is still a time of sober reflection and humble gratitude.

But amidst the yuletide pageantry, it’s easy to forget just how momentous the birth of Christ was. Indeed, the very regularity of the tradition can induce a conventional, almost unthinking, approach to it: we hurriedly attend our Christmas services, sing (or more likely, mumble) the relevant songs, and laugh good-naturedly at stilted acting or forgotten lines. Meanwhile, our minds are straining ahead, occupied with what many of us perceive (perhaps subconsciously) to be the real purpose of Christmas – presents and feasting and games of backyard cricket. None of these things are wrong in themselves, to be sure. Far from it. Nevertheless, it can mean that recalling God’s gracious inbreaking via the person of his Son is inadvertently relegated to a mere step along the way, rather than being cherished as the very reason we celebrate Christmas in the first place. To the extent that this is true – and in all honesty, I think each of us has been guilty of it – then it should not be. Perhaps if we were to examine Jesus’ birth afresh, we might then be in a better position to celebrate it with renewed fulsomeness.

Three Key Categories

There are a number of categories that can help us think more clearly about the birth of Christ – conceptual aids, if you like, that allow us to grasp more surely its manifold significance. A few such aids immediately spring to mind. We might refer to them as the union of humanity and divinity, a signpost of new creation, and a revelation of true kingship. These don’t exhaust the event’s meaning, by any means, although they do offer three convenient avenues towards greater understanding. I’ll examine each category in turn.

The Union of Humanity and Divinity

The ministry of Jesus Christ can be interpreted in a dizzying variety of ways. But one of the broad purposes of his appearing was to set in motion the (re-)union of humanity and God. More than that, it was by his own person that this cosmic reconciliation was to be accomplished. The pages of the New Testament are replete with references to what Christ achieved in this regard. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, for example, the apostle Paul waxes lyrical about the fact that in Christ, God was reconciling himself to the world (i.e., humanity; cf. 2 Cor 5:19). In a similar vein, 1 Timothy 2:5 refers to Jesus as the “one God and the one mediator between God and mankind”. These are just two of a multitude of texts that could be cited.

Reconciliation within a Christian schema, however, far exceeds the resumption of cordial relations between previously-estranged parties. For the writers of the NT, it means nothing less than the transformative union of God with his people. A battery of images is deployed, which try and convey the substantial nature of this divine-human concord. Paul compares the joining together of Christ with his church (and thus, with each individual Christian) to the “one-flesh” union between husband and wife. So profoundly intimate is the relationship between the Messiah and his people – one that is secured, of course, via the operation of the Spirit – that the apostle can use, as an analogy, the deep and comprehensive unity of the spousal bond (Eph 5:31-32). Or what about the Fourth Evangelist? In a stunning development of “new temple” theology, the Johannine Jesus speaks of making his “home” in the one who believes in him and does his will (John 15:23). This, too, surpasses mere unity of purpose or direction, and veers into the province of ontology [1]. It is why the author of 2 Peter could write that part of the goal of the Christian life is, remarkably, participation in the “divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). This isn’t to say that Christians somehow become divine. But the consistent witness of the NT is that those who are “in Christ” are consequently joined to the Triune God, in a process that entails the fundamental re-ordering of their beings.

I say all this by way of context. Jesus’ birth represents this union, this “marriage”, in his own person. And whilst the incarnation (i.e., the act by which the eternal logos took on human flesh) was possible without a miraculous birth, his spirit-generated conception dramatizes the joining together of those two natures – divinity and humanity – thereby foreshadowing the salvific reality his people will enjoy as they become temples for his presence. This is no arbitrary point. We shouldn’t forget that just as the NT is adamant that God’s people will experience immersion in the unsearchable depths of divine reality, it is equally convinced that Jesus Christ exemplifies (and indeed, enables) this kind of life. He is the pristine model for a truly human existence – human, because it is joined to, grounded in, and pervaded by, God’s nature and life. What is true of him will, in a sense, be true of his people as well (e.g., 1 Cor 15:47-49).

Of course, Jesus was (and is) unique, in that he is truly God and truly man; as I have already noted, the telos of the Christian life is reformation and renewal via a mystical bond with the divine, not divinization in a literal sense. Still, we can look to Jesus’ conception and birth – where God graciously imparted his own life into the womb of a young Jewess (Luke 1:34-35) – as an embodied reminder that it was always the Creator’s intention to forge a people who would live in perfect and constant communion with him. It was there, in the darkness of that womb, that the Creator “stitched together” (as it were) two, apparently irreconcilable categories of being [2]. The manner of Jesus’ first advent was at once authentically human and entirely the product of divine grace – signalling, in concrete form, a believer’s transfiguration as he or she is drawn into the divine nature.

Earlier parts of Scripture bear faint witness to this glorious prospect. Genesis 1-2, with its positioning of God’s image-bearers as the capstone of his creative work, is one of the more familiar texts in this regard. But the Nativity signals something far more substantive for those who are found to be in Christ. Again, what it does is provide us with a vivid picture of the goal that lies at the end of God’s redemptive enterprise: the establishment of a body of individuals who have not only conformed themselves to his will, but who are united to him in an act of spiritual betrothal.

A Signpost for New Creation

The prospective “marriage” between God and each believer (such that those who are being saved might enjoy the life-giving permeation of divine energy) is one element in the wider goal of liberating creation from its “bondage to decay” (cf. Rom 8:21). Here, too, the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth is instructive. In addition to providing us with a picture of that perfect union between the human and the divine, the Nativity also acts as a signpost of new creation. To be sure, the Bible’s salvific narrative climaxes with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It was there, and not at the point of his birth, that sin and death were broken; moreover, with the raising of Jesus from the dead, new creation truly began, breaking into the present, decaying world. One might even say that from a Christian perspective, history pivots on the resurrection, for in that event, we discover the commencement of the new age in microcosm – i.e., in the resurrected body of one man. Christ’s birth did not change the course of history per se, so to that extent, it differs structurally from the event of his resurrection. Nonetheless, it points (however unobtrusively) to the dawning of that greater reality. The birth of Jesus represented a fresh act of the Creator God, who imbued life into a willing Mary. With it, something unprecedented happened, as the fecundity of the divine took root in a broken, earthen world. This wasn’t simply the product of the created order’s internal drives and forces. Rather, it was the result of an apocalyptic work of God, who pierced the veil of death shrouding the old world with the shear of fresh life. His was an incursion into creation, achieving what no natural process could. In this way, then, the virgin birth continues to offer Christians an incarnate symbol that directs them to creation’s renewal – something that includes, of course, God’s reclaimed image-bearers, who experience their own supernatural birth.

This brings me back to the Nativity’s significance as it applies specifically to the people of God. If Jesus’ birth unveils the goal for redeemed human beings (whose lives are being conformed to his), then it also offers up a symbolic parallel for the spiritual “new birth” that every Christian enjoys. Latent in that term is an idea drawn from the third chapter of John’s Gospel. During a night-time rendezvous, the Johannine Jesus declares to an uncomprehending Nicodemus that anyone seeking entry into God’s kingdom “must be born again” (John 3:3, 5). With the assured finality of God’s incarnate logos, he claims that this is the only way a person can enter salvation. What Jesus seems to be saying is that the believer must undergo such a radical change of one’s being, one’s nature, that it can only be described as being “born again”. It is a deep-rooted transformation that God alone can accomplish (which explains why the phrase is sometimes rendered as “born from above”).

The beginning of one’s life in God is indeed akin to a new birth, for it represents a comprehensive break with the old world of sin and death. Jesus’ birth – and behind that, his conception – offers a concrete sign of this reality. Commenting on John’s theological perspective in the first few chapters of his gospel, the theologian, A.N.S. Lane, wrote that the evangelist may have even drawn a deliberate correlation between the believer’s regeneration and Christ’s virginal birth (cf. John 1:13) [3]. In any case, it is both a signal that new life had been unleashed upon creation, and, within that process of renewal, a witness to the Christian’s own “transfer” from one realm to another. The virgin birth reminds us that what is required is nothing less than the commencement of a new form of existence – a “supernatural begetting” (C.K. Barrett) – wrought by God’s (re)generative power. At this point, I can do no better than quote from N.T. Wright, who wrote about the miraculous nature of Christ’s birth thus:

“And if we believe that the God we’re talking about is the creator of the world, who longs to rescue the world from its corruption and decay, then an act of real new creation, anticipating in fact the great moment of Easter itself, might just be what we should expect…it is the notion that a new world really might be starting up within the midst of the old…”

A Revelation of the True King

So far, I have examined the birth of Jesus using the categories of biblical and systematic theology. Its function as a revelation of Christ’s kingship, on the other hand, is tied more closely to the biblical narratives themselves. Matthew, for instance, has Magi from the East visit Jesus, who worship him and present gifts as a form of tribute (Matt 2:1-12). The royal overtones of those acts are difficult to miss. The First Evangelist also quotes from Micah 5:2, applying that messianic (read: kingly) prophecy to the remarkable baby born to Mary and Joseph. Luke, for his part, sets his infancy narrative within the context of Roman history. His reference to an imperial decree, ordering all subjects of the Roman Empire to return to their ancestral lands for a census (Luke 2:1-3), subtly establishes a contrast between the earthly power of Caesar and the cosmic power – then hidden – of the world’s true Lord.

Strictly speaking, a miraculous birth was not necessary to ground an acclamation of Jesus’ kingship. However, it witnesses to the unique form that kingship took. Not only was Christ Israel’s king and a rightful heir to the throne of David; not only was he the nation’s messianic saviour; he was also her (and the world’s) transcendent king, having come in the flesh – a remarkable fulfilment of Yahweh’s promise to return to his wayward, exiled people (note the use of Isaiah 40:3ff, not only in Matthew in Luke, but in Mark and John as well). As I have already suggested, the virgin birth reveals the perfect union of humanity with divinity in the person of Jesus. But in so doing, it testifies to the fact of Jesus’ cosmic lordship.

Luke’s retelling of the event is illuminating in this regard. In his account, an angel appears to Mary and declares to her that she will bear a son. The language used to describe the still-future child is of a clearly regal nature: “Son of the Most High”, a descendant of David, and king over an eternal dynasty (Luke 1:30-33). When Mary asks how all this can be (given the fact of her virginity) the angel states that God’s own spirit and presence will “overshadow” her (v.35), enabling the young Jewess to conceive. The second half of verse 35 is crucial. Application of the title “Son of God” to Jesus is somehow linked to his spiritual conception, as if the latter is reason for the former being given (cf. v.35b: “So…”). Now, “Son of God” was a term familiar within Jewish culture, given its traditional connection to royal/Davidic figures. This is seen, for instance, in a passage like Psalm 2:7, which bears some affinity with 2 Samuel 7:14. By the time of Jesus’ advent, it had come to be associated with hopes for a messianic deliverer. However, the title was also used of the emperor at the time, Caesar Augustus – the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who himself had been formally deified after his assassination in 44BC. It is no accident, then, that Luke lodges his birth story within the context of a manifestation of imperial power; the fact that the emperor appropriated the status of God’s son only serves to sharpen the implied contrast I have already noted.

Paired with the promise of a miraculous, spirit-impelled birth, Luke’s use of “Son of God” functions as an important titular signpost, not merely to Jesus’ status as Israel’s anointed liberator, but to something far loftier. Like the other evangelists, Luke often employs the phrase in an elevated sense; as his own gospel unfolds, it’s apparent that Jesus conceives of his relationship with God in a way that only a son would with his father. It was a relationship that stretched back to the very beginning of his earthly life (and beyond); an intimate reality, in other words, to which the virgin birth testified. The NT scholar, Darrel Bock, observesd that “the presence of a divine element in [the Lukan] Jesus’ birth” suggests that for the Third Evangelist, “Jesus is from God in a unique way” (emphasis mine). It provided evidence that Christ was not merely sent by God, as an emissary might be commissioned by his master, but that he proceeded from the eternal Godhead as someone who, remarkably, shared the same nature.

The Lukan rendition of the virgin birth vividly shows that Jesus’ sonship was not exhausted by the prerogatives associated with mundane royalty. To be sure, it encompassed such notions, such that it was co-extensive with the belief that he was the promised Davidic heir. But that status – and the title through which it came to be expressed – exceeded all previous understandings of the concept, touching upon the very being of the transcendent Creator. Although Luke does not greatly emphasise the ontological overtones of Jesus’ sonship in his birth narrative (and is certainly not as explicit as, say, the Gospel of John), the basic contours of his theological convictions can still be detected. Whatever declarations others might have made regarding a unique, filial relationship with the Deity (particularly Caesar), they remained mere charlatans – parodies of the reality to which they aspired. Eclipsing them all was the world’s true sovereign, who alone could claim divine “parentage”: singularly conceived by God’s own creative power, and born to a poor Jewish couple on the margins of imperial society.


Hopefully, this little essay has revealed new insights into the significance of Jesus’ birth. Much more could be said, of course. But in it, I have tried to set down some markers for how to think about this momentous event. This is important amidst ongoing scepticism, even among Christians. In some quarters, the virgin birth is relegated to the status of mere myth or legend (where the term “myth” is synonymous with what is historically dubious). Aside from a philosophical prejudice against miracles, such a conclusion seems to be driven by the unstated assumption that Jesus’ birth constitutes an act of arbitrary wonderworking – and as such, is unworthy of God. But as I have sought to demonstrate, the virgin birth pulsates with theological meaning. It was not the work of a capricious deity, keen only to advertise his supernatural “bag of tricks”. Rather, it offered, and continues to offer, a window into the nature of the One who even now presides over creation. In his birth, Jesus was revealed as the true Son of God, who proceeded from the Father to assume his rightful role as saviour and regent. Moreover, the Nativity brims with the promise that those who are “in” him – who yield to his loving authority – will shed their old lives and enjoy life in union with their redeemer. These are things we can, and should, joyfully celebrate this Christmas.

[1] Using a term like “ontology” in relation to a believer’s relationship with God is always fraught with danger. Let me emphasise that I do not want to suggest that as Christians are conformed to the likeness of the Son, or participate in the divine nature, they thereby become gods (“quasi-divine”) themselves. This is idolatry. However, one gets the sense when reading the NT that what is envisioned is a substantial transformation of the redeemed individual, down to the very roots of his or her nature. Indeed, when Paul spoke of those in Christ being “new creations” (2 Cor 5:17), I think he intended his words to be read as more than mere metaphor or hyperbole.

[2] Again, care is required, lest one takes the birth of Christ to be an instance of two natures being brought together in such a way that the resultant individual is half-human, half-God: a tertium quid, but neither wholly human, nor wholly divine. This is not what I am aiming at with my (admittedly) metaphorical use of language. I merely mean to suggest that the virgin birth, in witnessing to the union of divinity and humanity in the person of Christ, functions as something of a symbol and pattern for Christians’ own lives.

[3] It’s quite possible that John was aware of a tradition concerning the unusual circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. See John 8:41b.


Postcards from the Marriage Wars (Part One): The Golden President Turns on the Golden Rule

On May 9th, President Obama told a TV interviewer that he supports same-sex marriage (SSM). This came soon after his Vice-President, Joe Biden, said he was quite comfortable with the notion. I don’t know if that had anything to do with the President’s revelation. He himself has said that his views on gay marriage have been evolving. Right now, he appears to have reached the end of that evolution, though one wonders if his VP’s comments gave him a nudge in that direction. Whatever the case, my point is not to interrogate Obama’s reasons for revealing what he did at this time (some candour on this issue is rather refreshing, actually). Instead, I want to examine the the President’s rather lazy use of the so-called “Golden Rule”, which he pressed into service as a kind of secular theological way of justifying his position. Here are his exact words:

“…the thing at root we [Michelle and Barack Obama] think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated”. (David Gibson, “Obama Backs Gay Marriage: Golden Rule Informs American Religion”, Huffington Post, May 11th, 2012. Emphasis mine).

That teaching is drawn from a portion of Jesus’ so-called Sermon on the Mount: “…do to others as you would have them do to you…” (Matthew 7:12). Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Perhaps we should treat others as we would want to be treated when it comes to the thorny, and divisive, issue of SSM. That way, we can all get along. It also seems superficially plausible: if we want to get married, then why should we deny that to others? The Golden Rule, it appears, commits us to this position – and all with the imprimatur of divine authority. Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with the President’s would-be Christian justification.

Most obviously, Obama’s reasoning falls flat due to a basic error. Taken to its logical extension, one might be able to advocate for just about anything, provided one was a supporter of the act in question. This is patently absurd. As Catholic philosopher, Francis Beckwith, has written, the Golden Rule “is not a quid pro quo for preference satisfaction reciprocity. Otherwise, it would mean that if one were a masochist, for example, then one should inflict pain on others” (“The President, Jesus and the Golden Rule,” Catholic Thing, 11th May, 2012).  Conversely, if one simply didn’t want to get married personally, one would have grounds for reversing Christ’s maxim and denying same-sex couples what President Obama clearly thinks is a sacred right (or rite) demanded by Christ himself. I mean, if I am treating others as I treat myself, and I don’t want to marry, then refusing gay couples the opportunity to do so is consistent with the logic of the President’s preference-based interpretation. If Obama can cite this verse to support SSM, one can easily cite it based upon one’s own, contrary preferences. Thus, any superficial usefulness it might have possessed collapses into incoherence.

Indeed, The President didn’t seem to realize that the Golden Rule, when used in such a lazily secular manner, does not settle the issue of the moral status of SSM. Employing Christ’s maxim as Obama did only works if one is already committed to the rightness of SSM. One first has to establish that something is a good before it can be said that the Golden Rule impels one to extend that good to another. The problem lies in the fact that President Obama used this verse as a foundational reason for his support of gay marriage (note his words above: “…the thing at root…”). It is question begging, since it already assumes – without reason or explanation – the normative status of SSM. Now, one might argue that SSM simply represents the extension of marriage to include those who want to marry a person of the same sex; if this is so, and we think marriage is a type of good, then surely we should treat others the way we want to be treated? However, it is precisely the meaning and essence of marriage (and therefore, whether it is proper to extend its meaning to embrace same-sex couples) that is contested ground. The Golden Rule, on the other hand, assumes some shared vision of what is good for a person or people. Debate over SSM, which goes to the heart of the meaning of marriage as an institution, is not within its purview. And since the Golden Rule says nothing about SSM – nothing at all – then appeals to it as the most basic grounding for support of the concept are meaningless.

Obama seemed also to misunderstand the nature of Christian ethical teaching. It is not the case that one can use a verse, completely shorn of its context, to make a point. Nevertheless, that is exactly what the President did. He neglected to mention that Christ’s maxim was a summation of the “Law and the Prophets” (part of the very same verse). What this means is that the Golden Rule is integrated with the rest of the Scriptures; it does not stand alone, in splendid isolation, ready to do the work of anyone who wants to justify anything on the basis of reciprocal preference. It is grounded in a particular theological context that says nothing at all about SSM, but which upholds the ideal of marriage as a union between a man and a woman (see Genesis 1:27; 2:23-24). What’s more, Matthew 7:12 is integrally tied to the rest of Jesus’ teaching – teaching which makes plain the fact that he upheld the creational ideal found in the Bible’s premier book. In fact, just twelve chapters after uttering the Golden Rule, Jesus pointed to the fact that “at the beginning” marriage was created as a union between a man and a woman (Matt. 19:1-6). Now, one might object that these verses don’t say anything about SSM either. Two things can be said in response. First, Jesus’ citation of the Genesis text implicitly ruled out sexual unions that lie outside the bounds of heterosexual marriage. His citation, I submit, assumed exclusivity of scope. Second, Jesus was an observant Jew, steeped in the OT, and living in the socio-cultural matrix of first-century Judaism. Support for homosexual acts – and therefore, advocacy of SSM – would have been highly unlikely, to say the least.

The upshot of all this is that President Obama has – unwittingly, perhaps – pitted Jesus against himself. One cannot believe what Jesus taught in Matthew 19, and yet use Matthew 7:12 as a way to advocate for SSM. Either that, or it appears the President has implied that not even Jesus taught in accordance with what the leader of the free world thinks is a proper interpretation of the Golden Rule. For Obama, who states that he and his wife Michelle are practising Christians, something is seriously amiss. How, pray tell, would he reconcile his reading of Matthew 7:12 with Christ’s teachings on marriage (found in the very same gospel)? If it’s true that Christ upheld the ideal of heterosexual marriage, and regarded homosexuality as a sin (as any observant Jew of his time would have), how would the President be able to maintain his religious and theological justification for SSM when it brings him into jarring conflict with the central figure – and the ethical model – of the faith he professes?

As one can see, several problems abound with Obama’s tortured, and tortuous, theological reasoning – and all this before we arrive at an exegesis of the passage in question. Looking at it in context, it’s clear that Matthew 7:12 can only be used as a justification for SSM advocacy by way of imaginative sophistry or intellectual laziness. It comes as part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which, although beloved by people who say they admire Christianity (but cannot really commit to all of its teachings), is actually directed towards disciples. This is made plain at the beginning of the section, in Matthew 5:1. Rather, it is an “in-house” sermon, directed towards those who already followed Jesus. Even if Obama’s interpretation were hypothetically plausible, it still would not warrant support for a change in public policy (true, Obama stated his stance on SSM as a personal view. But as President of the United States, and thus that nation’s leading public figure, his personal views cannot easily be disentangled from his public stance on issues).

Everything I have mentioned – the various layers of context within which the Golden Rule sits, Obama’s lazy and undiscerning application, and Jesus’ own recorded stance on the question of marriage – leaves one dubious about the prospect of Christ’s maxim doing all of this theological and intellectual heavy lifting. However, if we move on to the immediate context of Matthew 7:12, that prospect seems even more remote. Just before he uttered his famous words, Jesus spoke of asking (God, presumably) for one’s needs to be met. He then used his present audience in an analogous manner to show them that God could be trusted to supply their needs (Matt. 7:9-11). Moving from the lesser to the greater, Jesus concluded that if sinful human fathers would nonetheless liberally supply their children with everything they needed, how much more would one’s Heavenly Father supply one’s own needs, and work for one’s own good? Reading verse 12, it is apparent that Christ’s “Golden Rule” exhortation was the direct implication of God meeting the needs of his disciples. In like manner, they are to treat others in the same way, with the way one treats oneself (defined in a basic, commonsensical manner) acting as a yardstick. Their lives are to be characterized by a regard for others’ good that mirrors God’s regard for theirs’. In view of what Jesus preached just one chapter earlier – exhorting his disciples to refrain from worrying about the basics of life, precisely because of God’s provision (Matt. 6:25-34) – it seems one has some details regarding the kinds of goods and the sorts of needs one might meet when treating another as oneself. As I noted earlier, such a specific, and contemporary, concept/issue as SSM was never within the purview of Jesus’ teaching at this point.

It is sad to see someone of such intellectual acuity commit such an elementary blunder in an effort to “reconcile” the teachings of Christ and the church with modern-day concerns that are diametrically opposed. We can be thankful that President Obama has at least shown enough candour on this issue to be forthright and honest. As a lawyer, however, one thinks he would have been able to do better. But hey, I suppose that’s what you get when you try and please two groups whose disagreement over this issue could not be sharper. More seriously, it shows us that there are times when Christian ethical teachings simply will not submit to secular concerns, no matter how much one may try. Not even a President, powerful as he is, can reconcile the irreconcilable.