Is the Virgin Birth Essential to Christianity?

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Most of us are familiar with the narrative of Jesus’ birth: the angel who appears to Mary, the virgin conception, the babe in a manger in Bethlehem, the visit from the shepherds, and the gifts of the Magi. But do these events really matter to Christianity?

Does It Matter How Jesus Came into the World?

In a December 4, 2016, sermon, Pastor Andy Stanley, of North Point Community Church, introduced his sermon series Who Needs Christmas? with the following statement:

One of the challenging things about the Christmas season, and one of the challenging things about the Christmas story, is in fact the Christmas story . . . as it relates to the birth of Jesus. Because there’s so much miraculous, there’s so much amazing, there’s so much that’s really unbelievable about it. And a lot of people just don’t believe it, and I understand that, and maybe the thought is they had to come up with some myth about the birth of Jesus to give him street cred later on, maybe that’s where that came from.

It’s interesting because Matthew gives us a version of the birth of Christ, Luke does, but Mark and John, they don’t even mention it and a lot has been made of that. So before we jump in I just want to say one thing about that whole thing . . . if somebody could predict their own death and their own resurrection, I’m not all that concerned about how they got into the world because the whole resurrection thing is so amazing and . . . Christianity doesn’t hinge on the truth or even the stories around the birth of Jesus. It really hinges on the Resurrection of Jesus.

Now, not surprisingly, this introduction created a great deal of controversy. Was Pastor Stanley really suggesting that events like the virgin birth are inconsequential to Christianity? To defend his statements, Stanley said to The Washington Post,

Anyone who listens to all three [sermons in the series] will know that I stand firmly within the orthodox Christian tradition regarding the incarnation of Jesus — including the birth narratives as presented [in] Matthew and Luke.1

Now, Stanley may believe the events surrounding Christ’s birth. Indeed, he treats them as history throughout his three-part sermon series. But his introduction certainly implies that belief in the events described in Matthew and Luke are up for debate. Is he right in saying that only the Resurrection matters and how Jesus came into the world isn’t really a matter of concern?

The Bible Tells Me So

A central tenet of Christianity is indeed the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Paul emphasizes this in 1 Corinthians 15,

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15:12–17)

But this doesn’t mean everything else that Scripture tells us about Christ, including the birth narratives, are inconsequential. How is it that we know Christ was raised from the dead? As Paul puts it, “According to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:4). We know Jesus was raised from the dead for the same reason we know Jesus walked on water, fed the 5,000, and was born of a virgin—God’s Word tells us so.

If we can’t trust the birth narratives, then why should we trust the Gospels when they tell us Jesus was raised from the dead?

If we can’t trust the birth narratives, then why should we trust the Gospels when they tell us Jesus was raised from the dead? After all, the events surrounding Jesus’ death and Resurrection are also miraculous and amazing. Dead people don’t normally bring themselves back from the dead, temple curtains don’t rip in half on their own, tombs don’t break open so the dead inside can come out, and angels don’t usually roll tomb stones away. Why should we believe all of these events actually took place if we can’t believe that the events in the earlier chapters of Matthew and Luke took place? Once you start doubting God’s Word, where do you stop?

If It’s Only Mentioned Twice, Is It Important?

Pastor Stanley mentions that, of the four Gospel writers, only Matthew and Luke include Jesus’ birth narratives. John begins with a discourse on Jesus as the eternal Word, and Mark jumps in with John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism. But just because only two Gospels mention the birth narrative doesn’t mean it’s not important. Something only needs to appear once in Scripture for us to pay heed to it. The frequency of a teaching or narrative doesn’t determine its truth, historicity, or even its relevancy.

The Virgin Birth

Perhaps the most theologically important detail surrounding Christ’s birth is the virgin conception, popularly referred to as the virgin birth. Both Matthew and Luke mention it (Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:27, 34). Because Jesus was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35), He had a human mother, but not a human father. Due to His unique conception, Jesus, as the babe in the manger, was 100% God and 100% man.

But if Jesus was not born of a virgin, if Joseph or another human man was His father, how could He be the God-man? And if He’s not the God-man, the perfect and acceptable sacrifice for our sin, how are we saved? The virgin birth is not a side issue that may or may not be believed by Christians. It’s an historical event that’s foundational to the gospel.

Christianity—Grounded in History

It’s interesting that Pastor Stanley begins his sermon by downplaying, or even dismissing, the importance of the birth narratives when the whole point of his sermon series was why we need Christmas. His whole first sermon was about the historical backdrop of Christ’s birth, going back to God’s promise to Abraham. But if we don’t need to be concerned with how Jesus came into the world, why should we care about the events over the millennia that led up to Jesus’ birth? Stanley’s sermon is inconsistent with his introduction.

The prophecies of the Messiah’s birth are an important part of the storyline that cannot be set aside.

Additionally, Stanley asserts that the Jews of that era would not have been looking for a baby born in a manger as their Messiah. While that is likely true, it is not because the Scriptures don’t indicate such. As he downplays the prophecies in the Old Testament, He reads portions of the birth narrative in Matthew. For some reason, he skips over Matthew 1:23, which includes the prophecy of the virgin birth of Immanuel from Isaiah 7:14. Although many had missed it, the virgin birth is indeed prophesied as part of the Father’s plan to send the Son into the world as Savior. The prophecies of the Messiah’s birth are an important part of the storyline that cannot be set aside.

Christianity is a religion grounded in history and in the truth of God’s Word. How and why Jesus came as the virgin-conceived babe in the manger matters. Although the Christmas season is over, take time to reflect on what Jesus’ birth means to you for now and eternity.

Footnotes

  1. Kate Shellnutt, “Megachurch Pastor Ignites Debate After Suggesting that Christianity Doesn’t Hinge on Jesus’ Birth,” The Washington Post, December 24, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/12/24/megachurch-pastor-ignites-debate-after-suggesting-christianity-doesnt-hinge-on-jesus-birth/.

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