Isaiah 7:14 – Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
The genesis of the Bible’s promise of the virgin birth is actually located in its opening pages. In Genesis 3:15, God tells the Serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” God promises that Jesus would be born from a woman. This is unusual because the rest of Scripture speaks of children as being born from their father. Here, however, no father is mentioned for Jesus, which implies that he would not have a biological earthly father. Paul speaks in the same manner, saying in Galatians 4:4, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman . . .”
Some seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah 7:14 further illuminated his virgin birth: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” This verse is the most hotly debated Old Testament verse regarding the virgin birth of Jesus on two fronts.
Some contend that the prophecy was not speaking of future events but rather the birth of the son of Ahaz. That is half true. An examination of the entire context (Isaiah 7:10-14) reveals that the prophecy has a dual fulfillment; it speaks of the birth of a son to “Ahaz,” as well as the birth of the Messiah to the “house of David”. Furthermore, by naming the son “Immanuel,” God is promising more than just a male baby. Immanuel means “God is with us,” which points to the son being God. In addition, a few pages later we read in Isaiah 9:6-7, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forever more. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” This promise speaks to much more than just the birth of a male human baby.
Some also contend that the prophecy in Isaiah does not refer to a virgin. They argue that the Hebrew word almah (which is used in Isaiah 7:14) typically means “young woman,” not “virgin,” whereas the Hebrew word bethulah typically means “virgin.” However, there are many reasons why the verse should be read as referring to a virgin. Even if the word does mean “young woman,” that does not mean that she would not be a virgin. In that day, young women were virgins, making the terms synonymous for most young Hebrew women. Those unmarried women who were not virgins were subject to death under the Law. If there was any question about her virginity, a woman was subject to physical inspection, which we see in Deuteronomy 22:14–22.
Additionally, the word almah is used elsewhere in the Old Testament to refer specifically to a young virgin woman. One clear example is Rebekah in Genesis 24:16, who is described as “very attractive in appearance, a maiden [bethulah] whom no man had known.” Further, a few verses later we read in Genesis 24:42 that Rebekah was a “virgin [almah].” While the two words are virtually synonymous, apparently bethulah required a bit more clarification that the woman was a virgin while almah did not. Furthermore, two centuries before Jesus was born, we find that the Jews understood exactly what almah means: the Septuagint, the Jewish 250 B.C. translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, translates almah as parthenos, which unam- biguously means “virgin.” Lastly, in the New Testament, Isaiah 7:14 is clearly interpreted to be a prophetic promise about the birth of Jesus to Mary, who was both a young woman and a virgin.
The fulfillment of the inference in Genesis and the promise from Isaiah are recorded in great historical detail in two of the four Gospels:
Matthew 1:18–25 – Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us) [Isa. 7:14]. When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
Luke 1:26–38 – In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
In summary, the Old Testament both quietly implies and loudly prophesies the virgin birth of Jesus. The writers of the New Testament go to painstaking detail to emphasize that in every way, Jesus’ mother, Mary, was a virgin woman who conceived Jesus solely through a miracle of God the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, some have extended Mary’s virginity to the rest of her life, including the Catholic school teachers I had as a child.
Arguments for the perpetual virginity of Mary arose as early as the second century, became more popular in the fourth century, and culminated with the Second Council of Constantinople, which convened in 553 and declared Mary “ever virgin.” Some early church fathers (e.g., Origen), some Catholic and Protestant theologians (such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Wesley), along with the Second Helvetic Confession and the Geneva Bible say that Mary was “ever virgin,” or semper virgo.
The implications of the perpetual virginity of Mary are important. Practically, this would mean that not only was Mary a virgin when she conceived Jesus, but that following his birth she never had intimate relations with her own husband, Joseph. This teaching is inaccurate for three reasons.
First, God designed marriage to include sexual consummation (Genesis 2:24) and said that depriving marital intimacy is a sin (1 Corinthians 7:3-5).
Second, Matthew 1:25 says that they did have relations following Jesus’ birth: “But [he] knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.” The language here clearly implies that they did in fact have normal marital relations (as are celebrated in the Song of Solomon) after Jesus was born.
Third, Scripture repeatedly states that Mary had other sons and daughters (Matt. 12:46–50; 13:55–57; Mark 3:31–35; 6:3–4; Luke 8:19–21; John 2:12; 7:3, 5, 10; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:5; Gal. 1:19).
In no way are we ever led to believe that Mary produced a Suburban full of kids through a succession of virgin births. Jesus’ conception was unique, whereas the conception of his siblings was via the ordinary way of a husband and wife having a healthy marriage. Therefore, Scripture states that Mary was a virgin until the birth of Jesus, as was also taught by the church fathers Tertullian and Irenaeus. Much of the opposition to this simple and beautiful truth is based on the false assumption that loving, marital sexual intimacy is somehow unholy and therefore unfit for a woman like Mary.