In this classic sermon, John Stott (1921-2011), the famed rector of All Souls, Langham Place and founder of Langham Partnership, defends the historicity of the virgin birth and shows why it is significant.
Attacks on the virgin birth are not, in the very least, new. They are as old as Christianity itself.
Rationalists in every century and generation have repudiated the virgin birth of Jesus. All these critics were outside the church, while the church itself continued to confess its creed that He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. What is new today is that denials of the virgin birth are tolerated within the church, even by church leaders. That, my friends, is very serious indeed.
There are two things that I think we should think about. The first is the historicity of the virgin birth. Did it take place? What is the evidence? Can we believe it? And the second is the significance of the virgin birth. Does it really matter?
First, its historicity. Did it happen? I want to suggest four things.
The witness of the evangelists. Matthew and Luke bear unambiguous witness to the fact that Jesus was born of a virgin. And it’s quite clear that they believed this. Read Matthew and Luke. They’re not writing myth; they’re writing history. There is no doubt that their intention is to write and to be understood as writing history.
The authenticity of the atmosphere. When you read the early chapters of Matthew and Luke, you seem to be transported back into the last years of the Old Testament. Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist; Joseph and Mary; Simeon and Anna; are all devout Old Testament believers waiting for the Kingdom of God. The whole context of these early chapters is steeped in Old Testament piety. The language, the style, the structure of this literature is all Hebraic. Far from being late and legendary accretions, these stories were obviously written very early in Hebrew Christianity.
The stories are told with great simplicity and discretion. In ancient Greece and Rome, there were pagan myths about the gods having intercourse with human women, but you could hardly call that a virgin birth. And in place of those crude and fantastic myths, the Christian evangelists are beautifully reticent.
The rumors of illegitimacy. It is clear that rumors of Jesus’ possible illegitimacy were being spread during His own lifetime. Remember that when He declared that certain Jews, because they were unbelievers, could not have Abraham as their father but that their father was the devil, they blurted out, “We are not illegitimate” (John 8:41, NIV)—as if to say, “But you are.” On another occasion they said, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (see Mark 6:3)—a question nobody would ever have asked in a patriarchal society if the identity of His father were known.
I tell you that for this reason: What could have been the origins of such rumors of illegitimacy, unless it was known that Mary had become pregnant before she had married Joseph? It is corroborative evidence of the virgin birth of Jesus.
But I want to come now to the significance. Let me begin by conceding that the virgin birth is not given the same prominence in the New Testament as is the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Nevertheless, it is very significant, and the vigor with which critics have attacked the virgin birth suggests that they recognize its importance.
In Luke 1, the angel’s disclosure to Mary of the purpose of God is in two clear and distinct stages that are complementary, and it’s very important for us to understand this.
The first stresses the continuity that the child will enjoy with His ancestors and with the past, since He will be born of a human mother. The second stresses the discontinuity with the past because the Holy Spirit will overshadow her, and what is created within her will be a new being.
In the first stage, verses 30 to 34, the angel promises, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son” (verse 31). Nothing unusual about that. No suggestion that she will still be a virgin when it happens. Her son will inherit from His human mother both His humanity and His title to the messianic throne because He will be physically descended from David.
But then in verses 35 to 38, the angel continues, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”
When you put the two sections together, Jesus would derive His humanity and His messiahship from His mother, who conceived and bore Him, but He would derive His sinlessness and His divine nature from the Holy Spirit, who overshadowed her.
So, as a result of the virgin birth, you see simultaneously Jesus was both Mary’s son and God’s Son. He was both human and divine. One personality with two natures—Godhead and manhood.
I do not doubt that God could have secured the same end in other ways, but He chose to do it in this way. And as we consider the virgin birth, it seems appropriate that a unique person should enter the world in this unique way.
Now I want you to meditate with me on Mary’s response. “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me according to your word” (see Luke 1:38). The humility and the courage of Mary in submitting to the virgin birth stand out in strong relief against the attitudes of those critics who deny the virgin birth.
First, we need the humility of Mary. She said, “I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me as you say.” We say, “I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me as I say.”
Does it not strike you as being perverse that people should deny the virgin birth, preferring their own notion of what took place to God’s? Are they not willing to submit to the purpose and the revelation of God when it does not fit in with their prejudices? Are they so imprisoned in scientific rationalism and secularism—which says that the universe is a closed system and miracles are impossible—that they declare the Creator Himself limited by the universe that He has created? And they feel unable to declare with the angel that “with God nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37). Don’t they see the anomaly of trying to dictate to the Creator what He is permitted to do with His own creation? Would it not be more humble to say, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me as you say”?
And we need the courage of Mary. I admire her so much because she was willing for God to do what He wanted to do and was ready to risk misrepresentation in the process.
I sometimes wonder whether the major cause of theological liberalism and of the denials of fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith today is that we care more for our reputation—unlike Mary—than for God’s revelation. We cannot bear to be ridiculed. We cannot bear the stigma of being called old-fashioned, naïve, credulous, superstitious, obscurantist and all the rest. And so we sacrifice God’s revelation on the altar of our own respectability.
Of course unbelievers will smirk and scoff. Let them. What does it matter? What matters is that God is allowed to be God, that God is allowed to do things His way, not our way. And that we, then, should say with Mary, “Behold, I am the slave of the Lord. Let it be to me according to His word and will, not mine.” God give us the humility and the courage of Mary. ©1984 John R.W. Stott
Used by permission of the John Stott Literary Executors. All Rights Reserved.
To hear the full sermon, go to bit.ly/stott-virginbirth.
Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are taken by permission from The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, ©1946, 1952, 1971, 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. The verse marked NIV is taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version.
John Stott served as rector of All Souls Langham Place for some 25 years. He was a personal friend of Billy Graham and worked closely with BGEA in the Lausanne ’74 and Amsterdam 2000 evangelism conferences.
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