Dealing with an article on the virgin birth is like preaching against motherhood, apple pie and the American way. I am for motherhood, I like apple pie and I am an American. Likewise, I believe in the virgin birth. So I don’t want anyone to read this and say, “Dr. McConnell doesn’t believe in the virgin birth.” The point of this sermon is not to prove the virgin birth, because it cannot be proven. It is something we accept by faith.
The point of this is to force us to look at some of the absurdities that we put in place as Christians. The chasm between conservative and liberal Christians has grown wider over the generations. And those who consider themselves moderates seem to be rejected or outcast by both sides. In the frontier days of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) there was a saying, “In Essentials Unity, In Nonessentials Liberty.”
Billy Graham tells of a time early in his ministry when he was in a small town to preach. Wanting to mail a letter, he stopped a young boy on the street and asked directions to the Post Office. When the boy had told him, Graham thanked him and said, “If you’ll come to the Baptist church this evening, I’ll be telling everyone how to get to heaven.” The boy replied, “I don’t think I’ll be there. You don’t even know how to get to the post office.”
I have witnessed churches drawing battle lines over the virgin birth. I know of Search Committees that ask the candidate, “Do you believe in the virgin birth?” And demanding a simple “yes” or “no.” The message is clear; all good Christians believe in the virgin birth, heretics do not. The mature Christian soon learns that there are degrees of perception in scripture and degrees of what is significant.
The University of Louisville Cardinals arrived in Hawaii for a basketball tournament. When they entered a practice gym in Maui, the team soon realized that there were no basketballs on hand. As they discussed what to do, a youngster with an old, beat-up basketball entered the gym. Team members explained their problem and offered to buy the ball. Though the price kept climbing-$15, then $20, finally $50 – he continued to refuse. Finally, the team managers arranged for basketballs to be delivered. As the youngster prepared to leave, one player turned to tell him he’d been dumb to turn down that much money. “Oh yeah?” he replied. “At least I’m smart enough to take a basketball along when I practice.”
The problem is that while we make the virgin birth a big issue, scripture does not! In scripture, maternity (mother) is never as much of an issue as paternity (father). In American law there are some issues that are not debatable. If a man and a woman are married, and a child is born to that union, and he accepts paternity, it is no longer a debatable issue. As long as he claims fatherhood, no one can take that away. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Paternity is established! From that point on it really doesn’t matter who the mother is or was. The most important link has been affirmed, God is the father. Regardless now who the mother is, God is the father. The issue, as far as scripture is concerned, is settled.
There are three points that must be considered: The text itself reveals how unimportant the issue really is. Things that are really important are constantly repeated. The resurrection of Jesus, The Ten Commandments, Circumcision, Apostleship, etc. Matthew and Luke are the only two gospels that talk about the virgin birth. Why are Mark and John silent? Even in Matthew and Luke the two gospels declare Jesus’ genealogies back to Joseph and not Mary. Jesus never made belief in the virgin birth as a condition of discipleship and in fact never appears to have talked about it. None of Paul’s letters in the New Testament talk about the virgin birth, they are completely silent. Of all of the first preaching about Jesus that history has preserved, none talk about the virgin birth.
The second point is the word “virgin” itself. The Greek word is “PAR-THEN’-OS”. The Hebrew word is “BETH-OO-LAW”. The interesting part is that both words mean the same, “maiden.” The same word for maiden, unmarried woman, girl and virgin. When Mary says to the Angel, LUK 1:34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” She was always saying, “since I am unmarried.” Many newer translations use the words maiden or girl over the term virgin. Our English language and even our interpretation of scripture was greatly influenced by the King James Bible. Written in 1611 during the Victorian age.
The third point that has influenced us has been the Roman Catholic Church’s view of Mary. The days soon came when the Church glorified virginity and held that the highest Christian life was to be celibate. That is why Priest don’t marry. But the Roman Church began to move more toward the belief that Mary was a perpetual virgin. That is why Mary is held in such reverence in the church. The Roman Church believed that Mary never had sex with Joseph. The church taught that those in scripture considered brother and sisters of Jesus were either: children of a previous marriage of Joseph, or cousins, of another Mary. This has so influenced the Church that this is why we have the word “virgin” in so many of our creeds. While Mary certainly was a special person, as Protestants, we see her as another human being. In all other aspects family life for Mary and Joseph was normal. Mary went on to have a normal marriage and I suspect a healthy sex life.
The story of the virgin birth has its place in scripture. It fulfills prophecy, that a maiden, an unmarried girl (we assume a virgin) had a male child. The uniqueness of the situation, points to God. I believe she was a virgin because of the tradition she lived in. The faithful and obedient persons she and Joseph were.
But my faith rests on the belief that, “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Not on who His mother was. Or what type of person she was.