She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
Peter Leithart offers some important insight on the significance of the Virgin Birth of the Messiah, Jesus. It has nothing to do with sinlessness, per se; and everything to do with something deeper than that: with what it means to be genuinely human before God. This impacts our sinful statuses, indeed, but the frame, exegetically understood, isn’t about sinlessness; the frame goes to an antecedent reality, and what it means to be genuinely human before God. This is the significance of the incarnation of God in the womb of Mary: it is only the sort of work that the Creator God, who is Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit, can accomplish.
Matthew’s point is different. He says nothing about Jesus’ sinlessness here. The emphasis is on Jesus as the Deliverer from sin, not on Jesus’ own freedom from sin. This episode is framed as part of a creation story. Like 1:1, verse 18 uses the word “genesis” (γένεσις, translated “birth”). In this creation context, the references to the Holy Spirit (vv. 18, 20) allude back to Genesis 1:2. Mary is the “earth” over which the heavenly Spirit hovers to form a new creation. Joseph rising from sleep to take his wife reminds us of Adam in the garden (Genesis 2:18-25), taking Mary as his wife just as Adam took the newly created Eve as his wife.
This virgin birth is thus a sign of God’s new initiative, of God’s new creation, which begins with the creation of the new Man, Jesus. Our salvation does not come—it cannot come—from inside humanity. We are not capable of saving ourselves. God has to come in from the outside if we are going to be saved. We cannot repair the damage of sin or construct a new creation by our own initiative, by our own reproduction, by our own expertise or power. The virgin birth passes a judgment on all human efforts at self-salvation, all our prideful pretense that we can put the world right through political or technological or educational means. If the world is going to be put to right, God must enter the world from the outside, because everything that comes from within humanity is corrupted and weak.
We can also note Isaiah’s and Matthew’s use of the name Immanuel, “God with us.” The virgin birth means that Jesus is God with us, God in human flesh, God who has taken on human nature to be with His people and to save us. The virgin birth thus tells us something about the nature of Christ. It is not as if Joesph and Mary had a son who later became the Son of God. It is not as if there as a pre-existing human being who was later infused with Godness. Rather, the virgin conception and birth shows that Jesus only exists as the humanity of the Son of God. There is not even a single moment when the humanity of Jesus exists by itself. It is always, from the moment of conception, the humanity of the Son of God. It is God’s humanity. And this means that Jesus really is God-with-us, God near us, God entered into human nature, into human history, in the fullest possible sense. There is no distance between God and Jesus, not ever for a single second. Donald Macleod has written, “God was involved in a peculiarly direct and intimate way in the creation of his humanity. To deny the virgin birth and introduce instead human sexual activity is to distance God unacceptably from the production of the Holy One.” To touch the humanity of Jesus is to touch the humanity of God. To see and hear Jesus is to see and hear God in human flesh. Because of the Virgin Conception and Birth, Jesus truly is, in the most direct way possible, both God and with us.1
T.F. Torrance fills out the richness that Leithart has identified for us, and in concert with that; but with an application of the analogy of the virgin birth to the possibility for ‘saving faith,’ Torrance writes,
By that we are guided to think and given to understand something of our own salvation and recreation. As in the annunciation of the word to Mary, Christ the Word himself became flesh, so in the enunciation of the gospel, we surrender in like manner to Christ the Word now made flesh, and there takes place in us the birth of Jesus, or rather, we are in a remarkable way given to share through grace in his birth and to share in the new creation in him. That is the Christian message – the Christmas message. It is not of our self-will or free-will that we are saved and born anew from above. ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.’ Here there is a ‘become’ dependent on the ‘become’ of ‘the Word become flesh’, grounded in it and derivative from it. What happened once and for all, in utter uniqueness in Jesus Christ, happens in every instance of rebirth into Christ, when Christ enters into our hearts and recreates us. Just as he was born from above of the Holy Spirit, so we are born from above of the Holy Spirit through sharing in his birth. Just as in the birth of Jesus there was no preceding action on our part, or human co-operation, such as the co-operation between a human father and a human mother, just as there was no prior human activity there, so in our salvation and in our knowledge of God there is no a priori, no human presupposition, no Pelagian, semi-Pelagian or synergistic activity.2
Thematically, both Torrance and Leithart see the primordiality of the virgin birth as the event sui generis; of the sort that only an otherworldly reality, extra nos, could conceive. In order for salvation to actualistically obtain for all of humanity, the particular humanity of God graciously invaded the crust of the broken human body and offered His primal life, the Bread of Life for the world, in the humble womb of a backwater country-girl named, Mary. By this move of God, this ‘hovering,’ humanity came to be humanity once again, the moment the Spirit conceived the humanity of the Son out of the ‘seed of the woman.’ He inspired this ‘seed,’ the woman’s seed, the day that He took woman from the rib of the first Adam, in preparation for the parousia of the second and Greater Adam for whom the world was created. It is from the miracle, the protological first, and the eschatological second, that the Spirit of God brought reconciliation between God and humanity, as that elected reality was given actual/temporal flesh in the Virgin Conception. Magnificant
1 Peter J. Leithart, Matthew Through New Eyes: Volume One: Jesus as Israel (Louisiana, Monroe: Athanasius Press, 2017), loc. 801, 810, 817 kindle.
2 Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 100-02.