The beauty of the birth of Christ is it didn’t just happened. In God’s great foreknowledge, He knew we’d sin, yet even before we sinned, He put a plan in place to bring us back to Him. So the events that we remember and celebrate at Christmas didn’t just happen; they were on God’s radar from the beginning.
He hinted at the birth, life, and death of Jesus the Messiah all through the Old Testament. And it’s those prophecies I want to address. From our perspective on this side of the New Testament, when Christians read the Old Testament, those signposts pointing to Jesus seem obvious. “LOOK AT THAT PASSAGE. IT SCREAMS JESUS!”
Yes, it does—but it didn’t to those who first heard or read them. Nor was it necessarily clear to the prophet or writer who first spoke them. Their words were part of a specific message to a specific group of people.
Many prophecies refer to more than one event. The first fulfillment of the prophecy usually is found in a person or event close in time to when the prophecy was first given. The ultimate fulfillment is usually found in the person of Christ .
This becomes pretty cut-and-dry as you study Old Testament history, but then we come to Isaiah 7:14:
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin[d] will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
So if this prophecy refers to two events, wouldn’t that mean there are two virgin births?
Nope. Not at all.
The context of Isaiah includes an immediate meaning for King Ahaz, but there is also the greater, future Messianic meaning, but there were not two virgin births. The difference comes in how the Greek and Hebrew languages use the word “virgin.”
The Hebrew word, betula, can refer to a young maiden or a woman who has never been sexually intimate. In Deuteronomy 22, the word is used to clearly refer to a woman who has never engaged in sex. But in other places, the context refers to a young woman regardless of her marital status. For example, in Jeremiah’s prophecy about Israel, who had been unfaithful to God, the people were referred to as Virgin Israel (Jer. 31:4). Context dictates how the word is to be used.
The context of Isaiah 7 has to do with events surrounding King Ahaz. As the New American Commentary points out:
The birth would be a sign for the king in the immediate circumstances. The Hebrew text reads, “The young woman has conceived and is giving birth to a son.”
Ahaz probably knew the woman of whom the prophet spoke. Some have suggested it was Isaiah’s wife and son. Others believe it was some other woman in Israel. The most likely candidate may have been a wife of Ahaz, since this would have been the surprise fulfillment of the oracle, a royal prince becoming a sign to the king, his name—Immanuel—constantly reminding the king that “God is with us.” Such a sign would give hope to a king who trusted God, but would be a constant threat to one who followed his own strategy. As Childs phrases it: “The sign of Immanuel… now has a double edge. For those of unbelief—Ahaz and his people—the sign is one of destruction (v. 17), but for those of belief, the sign of Immanuel is a pledge of God’s continuing presence in salvation (v. 16)” (Childs, pp. 67-68).
The Greek word, parthenos, is not as broad. It clearly refers to a virgin, an unmarried daughter. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, the Septuagint, it used this word in Isaiah 7:14. As Matthew was inspired to recount the birth of Jesus, he used this translation of Isaiah 7:14, clearly wanting us to see the miraculous virgin birth of Christ. Again, let me quote from the New American Commentary:
The Septuagint interpreted this, “The virgin will conceive,” a translation taken up in Matthew 1:23 and the continuing Christian tradition. The church has seen and continues to see that God often gives fuller and deeper meaning to his word at a stage after its original fulfillment. This is definitely the case here, for the New Testament shows us that Jesus Christ was virgin-born and is Immanuel, God with us.
The beauty of God’s Word is seen in how God could declare a word to an individual or group that spoke to their immediate context, yet that same prophecy could carry a deeper, richer word concerning the coming of Jesus Christ.