How can you possibly believe that God made a dirty diaper?”
The man was mocking my faith, and particularly the belief in what we call the Incarnation. Like many Jewish people, he insisted that it is blasphemy to believe that a man could become God—and that much is true—it would be idolatry to worship a mere man as though he were God. But what if God, the creator of the universe, chose to become a human being?
In a recent newspaper interview, a reporter asked talk show host Larry King what one great mystery he would choose to resolve if he could. His answer? The virgin birth of Jesus Christ. When I read that I remembered my conversation with Larry King in the studio back in 2001 when I appeared on his show. Off-camera, Larry confided, “I can’t believe in a God who would slay His enemies and I have a very hard time believing in the supernatural, like the virgin birth.” I had the opportunity to tell him, “Larry, if you allow for the existence of an almighty creator God, by definition you have to believe the supernatural. Don’t you think that God could do whatever He wants, including a miraculous birth?” That was the end of our conversation, but obviously the issue continues to intrigue Larry King, and no doubt many others as well.
Recent editions of both TIME and Newsweek magazines voiced the skeptical speculations of liberal scholars who contend that the doctrines of the virgin birth and the Incarnation are merely rehashing pagan mythology. “Nativity narratives can be seen as Christian responses to the birth stories of pagan heroes like Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus” (Newsweek, Dec. 13, 2004, p. 51).
In fact, the promise of the miraculous birth of the Messiah was predicted by a Jewish prophet 700 years before Jesus was born. Jewish gospel writer, Matthew, reporting the birth of Jesus, explains, “So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us.'” (Matt. 1:22-23) “The prophet” Matthew is referring to is Isaiah. (See Isaiah 7:14.)
Larry King may call the virgin birth a mystery, but most Jewish leaders prefer to see it as a mistranslation, arguing that the Hebrew word almah, used by Isaiah, is more properly translated young maiden, not virgin. If Isaiah wanted to say virgin, they argue, he would have used the Hebrew word bethulah.
But what these same leaders conveniently fail to point out is that unlike our present day, in Isaiah’s day, all young maidens were in fact virgins. Also, many Bible scholars will point out that in the Hebrew Bible the word almah is used almost exclusively to describe a woman or young girl who is a virgin. Further, while bethulah is also often used to describe a virgin, Joel 1:8 uses the word bethulah to describe a widow lamenting over the husband of her youth. So it is inaccurate to say that bethulah would be the indisputable way to refer to someone as a virgin. Moreover, Matthew was actually quoting from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures commonly used among Jews in the first century. That translation uses the Greek word parthenos, which in the Septuagint means virgin, and clearly demonstrates the common Jewish understanding of this passage at that time. Cyrus Gordon, a leading Jewish scholar who was formerly Professor of Assyriology and Egyptology, at Dropsie College, wrote:
“The commonly held view that “virgin” is Christian, whereas “young woman” is Jewish is not quite true. The fact is that the Septuagint, which is the Jewish translation made in pre-Christian Alexandria, takes ‘almah’ to mean ‘virgin’ here. Accordingly the New Testament follows Jewish interpretation in Isaiah 7:14.” “‘Almah in Isaiah 7:14,” Journal of Bible and Religion 21 (1953), p. 106. For a more extensive look at this topic, go here.
Isaiah predicted the virgin birth. Matthew tells us that the birth of Yeshua fulfilled Isaiah’s prediction. We must conclude that such a supernatural event is entirely possible with an all-powerful God.
After all, the virgin birth makes perfect sense in light of the Incarnation—and just as Isaiah promised the virgin birth of Messiah, so he predicted the Incarnation. “For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6). If there is a mystery more profound than a virgin giving birth to a baby, it must be that the Lord of all creation took the form of that baby—that the infinite God became an infant. Yet this is exactly what Isaiah declared would happen. He predicted this child born, this son given, would have some very unusual names to say the least. “Wonderful” (in Hebrew peleh) is not just a superlative in the way we might call someone a wonderful person. It refers to the miraculous. This child to be born was to be an absolute wonder, someone who would in fact be supernatural.
If there were any doubt about this, Isaiah adds another name to the list, el gibor, mighty God. The Mighty God, who created the vast universe, would become a man and take on a human nature, forever joining Himself to the people He created. He would be forever and fully God, forever and fully man. There could be no one else like Him, whose divine and human natures would remain an eternal mystery.
Isaiah’s amazing prophecy certainly provided the basis for the angelic announcement to those Jewish shepherds near Bethlehem: “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). The angels informed the shepherds that the baby born was both Messiah and Lord, a clear reference to the deity Isaiah had foretold. But they also said that he would be the Savior. If one can believe in such a miraculous child, it is not difficult to accept that His mother was a virgin.
Why would God go to such extraordinary lengths? The wonder of the virgin birth and the miracle of the Incarnation were not some pair of divine parlor tricks designed to provoke mere amazement. Rather, they reveal some of the character of the Holy One of Israel. His love for His creation is so profound, so deep and powerful, that He is willing to go to these amazing ends to secure our salvation. So deep is His love for us that He is willing to join Himself eternally to human nature to make possible an eternal relationship with all who believe and follow Him. That is the true mystery that will not likely be resolved by Larry King or you or me or anyone else. But for those who approach this Christmas moment in faith, we are filled with the awe and wonder of what happened in that little town of Bethlehem. We can only love, worship and praise our Messiah, with a deep and abiding desire to find others who might join us at the feet of our beautiful Savior.