When the Gospel writer Matthew introduces us to the Christmas story, he builds it around five successive vignettes. Each carries its own unique message, and the collective of all five then broadcasts an even larger set of themes. The first vignette is built around the genealogy of Jesus (I did a pair of blogs on that here and here). The second vignette is built around the importance of the virgin birth.
Matthew says it as straightforwardly as possible:
“This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1.18)
Can you imagine the combination of joy and turmoil that Mary and Joseph must have been going through when they discovered this gift? On one hand I’m sure there must have been excitement – they had been directly chosen by God to fulfill the 1,000 year old promise of the Immanuel’s coming (v23). And yet there must have been so much turmoil as well. How do you even begin to grasp the magnitude of this task? And how do you begin to explain this to your family? “Well, we never had sex, but we have a baby coming. Don’t worry though. God is the one that impregnated Mary. It’s all good…” I’m sure that conversation went over without a hitch.
Matthew begins the Christmas account with a genealogy of the grandparents of Jesus. But the first story he tells is that of the virgin birth. For Matthew, this represents something deeply foundational about Jesus, and he uses the words of the angel to make that point clear. In v21 the angel says to Joseph:
“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.”
This is the most straightforward of all of Matthew’s stories, but it’s also the most important. Though Jesus in the flesh will represent many things, none will be as significant as Savior. Jesus has come to save his people – in every way. Salvation has both an individual and corporate dimension to it, and it’s all wrapped up in the image of the virgin birth.
Why is the imagery of the virgin birth important to understanding salvation?
For one, it reminds us where salvation actually comes from. When it comes to salvation, the human instinct has always sought to control the process. We hope (need?) to believe we can accomplish it on our own. It allows our sense of self sufficiency to remain in place.
So we strive. We prove. We demonstrate our worth. We obey in hopes that we are obedient enough. We pay to work off our debt. We work to put God in ours.
But any and every combination of those leaves us as the one who accomplishes salvation, and it flies in the face of both the Cross and the Virgin birth. What the Christmas story declares with absolute conviction is that we are 100% dependent on God for salvation. The virgin birth reminds us that human beings aren’t able to reach out to God – we need God to reach out to us. The virgin birth reminds us that grace is always an outside gift.
The entrance of God into human flesh was not intended to introduce a new set of moral principles. It was not fundamentally a call to a new set of behaviors. It was not the creation of a new religion.
Instead, it was a declaration that Jesus had come to save his people from their sins.
And that is why the entrance of Jesus is choreographed through a virgin birth. The virgin birth is rivaled only by the cross as the symbol of what Christianity is truly about. Forgiveness of sins is not something we can produce on our own. Redemption is not a human initiated activity.
May this Christmas season remind us anew of the good news of a God who has already come to get us. This is the only thing that allows us to truly know we are accepted and forgiven – it is not dependent on how good or bad of a day you’ve had. It’s dependent on the love and grace of a God who gave everything to come and get you.
Photo Credit: Heather Abraham