“I believe in Jesus Christ… who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. —The Apostles’ Creed
Luke sets up the story of Jesus’ conception in the first chapter:
God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David.
Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!”
Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean.
“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”
Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”
The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God.” —Luke 1:26-35 (NLT)
This was to fulfill the words of Isaiah the prophet:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (God is with us). —Isaiah 7:14 (ESV)
Anyone who has ever set foot in a Christian church around Christmas knows this story. Christmas isn’t about Santa Claus, it’s about the birth of Jesus to a virgin teenager and her not-yet-married fiancé.
The miracle of the virgin Mary’s conception was not some sort of party trick by God; it was a necessary part of God’s plan of salvation. Why?
The moral flaw in the universe is sin, and what is sin? It’s the failure of humanity as a whole and individual men and women in particular to respect the boundaries established by God’s moral authority.
Morality is not arbitrary. Morality is not cultural. Morality is not a human-contrived legal or ethical construct. Not if the God of the Bible is real.
The Bible’s claim is that God is good, which sounds trite. What it means is that God is the moral ideal, the embodiment of all that is morally right, all that is just, all that is excellent, all that is pure. God is good; human beings are sinners.
You may object to being labeled a sinner. You may look at yourself and feel rightfully proud at the good things you have done, the good example you have set, the good reputation you have made for yourself.
We compare ourselves to others, we grade ourselves on a curve, we ignore certain events for which we can hardly be blamed, but how do we measure up when compared to God? He is perfect, always has been, always will be. No youthful indiscretions. No slip-ups. No embarrassing moments of weakness to sweep under the rug. If morality was a batting average, God would bat 1000 every season since before the earth was formed.
Therefore, if the holy and perfect God wanted to show sinful human beings what life could be like when lived moment by moment within the boundaries of God’s good and just morality, he was going to have to find someone better than any prophet who ever lived, better than any Bible believing rabbi who ever lived, better than any holy man, no matter how determined they might be to live in purity.
Enter Jesus, God’s holy son. The great mystery that we find hard to understand is that God himself entered the body of a young woman as a zygote, then a fetus, then a baby born in a stable in a backwater Jewish town called Bethlehem. God himself lived among us and demonstrated through actions and words what obedience to God’s morality should look like. God himself took on the punishment for our sins by bleeding and dying on a Roman cross. And God himself showed us how to join his eternal family by conquering death.
It all had to start with God entering the world not as the holy and awesome and eternal Creator of Everything, which would be somewhat intimidating, to say the least, but as an apparently ordinary man who said and did rather extraordinary things—because he was God living incognito.