The Bible is very clear that Mary conceived the boy Jesus before she had slept with any man. She was engaged to Joseph but had not slept with him (Luke 1:27); she would not sleep with him until after they were married and Jesus was born (Matt. 1:25). She was a godly young woman; Joseph was a righteous man. They lived in a culture that valued virginity before marriage, in a way that is foreign to our society but right and beautiful. They knew as well as we do that babies are not conceived except by the natural process of human procreation.
So, when Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive a baby, she is very surprised. Very, very surprised. “How will this be . . . since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34).
The virgin conception of the Lord Jesus is both wonderful and meaningful; it points us to at least three facets of the incarnation.
1. God is sovereign
This miracle makes it clear that the sending of Jesus was entirely the sovereign work of God himself. The astonishing births of Isaac, Jacob, and Esau, and then others in the Old Testament all the way down to John the Baptist, at least involved both a father and mother who wanted a child and—as we put it—were “trying for a baby”. But this most astonishing conception of them all involves no human desire or intention or involvement; God simply does this miracle by his own sovereign decision in the womb of the very surprised Mary (and to the surprise of the uninvolved Joseph).
The apostle John writes that Christians are given “the right to become children of God—children born [spiritually] not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will”; instead we are “born of God” (John 1:12-13). What becomes true of us spiritually by new birth (entirely the decision and initiative of God) echoes what was true of the Lord Jesus’ supernatural conception: no human desire or husband’s will was involved. No human beings did anything to help God send Jesus; God decided to do it, and he did it. There is no room for spiritual smugness on our part.
This miracle makes it clear that the sending of Jesus was entirely the sovereign work of God himself.
2. God did not adopt Jesus
The virgin conception of Jesus proves to us that God did not adopt Jesus as his Son. Sometimes people suggest that Jesus was a remarkable man, and so God decided to adopt him as his Son, perhaps at his baptism or at his birth. But the virgin conception means that from the very first moment of his human existence, Jesus was (and had always been) the eternal Son of God. Indeed, in that instant the One who had been God the Son from all eternity took upon himself a human nature: “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14).
This moment—this hidden, unwitnessed instant in the womb of the virgin Mary—was the most astonishing miracle in all of human history.
3. God became man
The virgin conception of Jesus points to the mystery that this boy was at the same time both fully human—inheriting a fully human nature from Mary—and also fully divine. In some astonishing way that we can never completely describe or analyze, Jesus Christ was, and is, fully man and fully God. He is fully human, and yet without the taint and defilement of the sinful, spoiled nature that each of us inherits from our father and mother.
This matters. It means that, standing in heaven now at the right hand of the Father, there is a perfect high priest who is able “to feel sympathy for our weaknesses”, who “has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Heb. 4:15). Jesus understands that loss of temper with your housemate, that selfish decision for your own comfort over serving others, that lustful or covetous thought. He knows. And yet he was without sin; and so he can save you out of it all.
No wonder Christians down the ages have stood in awe and wonder as they—and now we—have contemplated the miracle of Jesus Christ, the Son of God made flesh.
This is an excerpt from Christopher Ash’s new Advent devotional Repeat The Sounding Joy. This devotional will help you to celebrate afresh the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah in history, and learn what it means to wait for him with joyful expectation today.