In the early decades of the 20th century, the virgin birth was a focal point for liberalism’s many denials of Christian truth. Those who believed the Bible recognized that the virgin birth is indeed biblical and rose to the doctrine’s defense, answering the liberal objections. They did such a good job that eventually most liberals refused even to grapple with the arguments made on behalf of this truth. They just continued in their unbelief, as some people do, in spite of the fact that the Word of God clearly teaches the virgin birth and that the objections to it have been answered. Let us look at Matthew 1:18ff.
Much of this debate centered around the Old Testament text that Matthew cites as a prophecy of the virgin birth: Isaiah 7:14. “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (v.23). It has been argued that Isaiah’s word for the young woman, bethulah, does not necessarily mean “virgin,” though it usually does. It can mean merely a young woman of marriageable age. But whatever Isaiah meant in his own context is a secondary matter here, since it is beyond doubt that Matthew at least meant to teach that Jesus was conceived by God apart from any human father. He makes this clear in Mathew 1:18, which reads, “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.”
The account then goes on to explain that Joseph was disturbed by Mary’s pregnancy, as any man in his position would be. Being a righteous (that is, an upright) man, he did not think it proper to go through with the marriage and decided to break his engagement to Mary in a private manner. But while he was pondering this, an angel appeared to him to explain that Mary had not been unfaithful to him but that the child she was carrying had been conceived by God. The angel said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (vv.20–21).
Joseph did as the angel had commanded, and the account concludes, “But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.”
One thing we notice, as soon as we begin to compare Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, is that they are both quite Jewish in character. Luke was a Greek who wrote in a polished Greek style. J. Gresham Machen said of Luke’s prologue, “It would be difficult to imagine a more skillfully formed, and more typically Greek sentence than this.” But he added, “This typically Greek sentence is followed by what is probably the most markedly Semitic section in the whole New Testament.”
This is so unlike Luke’s other writing that we can only explain it by assuming that Luke got this material from an Aramaic or non-Greek source. He says in verse 3 that he had “carefully investigated everything [about the life of Jesus] from the beginning.” So Luke must have talked with those who had been eyewitnesses of these events. In respect to Jesus’ birth, Luke must have gotten his details from Mary, who would have been the original, best, and, at this late date, probably the only eyewitness of the nativity events left. Moreover, Luke must have received his material in some sort of written form, which may itself also go back to Mary.
When we turn from Luke to Matthew, we find that Matthew’s account no less than Luke’s is Jewish in character, evidenced, for example, in the matter of Joseph and Mary’s betrothal and the problem it presented for Joseph. In Jewish culture at that time, a betrothal carried such a weight of personal commitment that something almost like a formal divorce was needed to dissolve the engagement. This circumstance did not prevail in the Greek or Roman cultures of the time.
As we read on, we discover that five times in the opening two chapters Matthew explains what was happening by a reference to the Old Testament. He employs a standard formula for Old Testament citations, saying, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet …” (Mathew 1.22; 2:5, 15, 17, 23).
Then he quotes the text that prophesied the event he recorded:
- he cites Isaiah 7:14 as proof of the virgin birth.
- he cites Micah 5:2 regarding Christ’s birth in Bethlehem;
- Hosea 11:1, which speaks of God calling his “son” out of Egypt;
- Jeremiah 31:15, which deals with the people’s weeping for the slain infants of Bethlehem;
- an uncertain text prophesying that Jesus would “be called a Nazarene.”
In Matthew’s account the Gospel from beginning to end is Jewish. Everything that is spoken is in terms of God’s fulfillment of His promises to Israel. There is not even a suggestion that the reason Jesus came to earth was that he might die for sin. On the other hand, when we turn to Matthew’s Gospel, though it is clearly Jewish, it is also obviously post-Christian. That is, it was written after the death and resurrection of Jesus when the Gospel of His atoning death was being proclaimed throughout the world.
The child’s name would be “Jesus, because he will save His people from their sins” (v. 21). This reflects a later, Gospel understanding. The significance of the Magi is that they were Gentiles and that Jesus was their king too.