Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy that confirms Jesus’ humanity as well as his royal heritage. Although Jesus was born into the line of King David, his immediate parents were actually poor and insignificant. Jesus had a true humanity. And yet, the genealogy was unique in how it explained his relationship to his parents. Instead of following the pattern of naming the father, Matthew carefully states that Joseph is not the physical father (Matt 1:16). More explanation is provided in our passage this morning.
The genealogy roots Jesus in our humanity, and the birth narrative reveals his divine nature. The hopes and fears of all the years under the Old Covenant have reached their appointed time of satisfaction. God would dwell among his people, not in a tabernacle, not in an ark, but in flesh!
In the early stages of Christianity—when Matthew wrote this account—there was much confusion regarding Jesus. On top of the Jewish misunderstanding about the Messiah, rumors and lies have been circulating since the time of Christ’s ministry. Misunderstandings about Jesus abound in our time as well. Christmas trinkets and slogans often depict the themes of joy and peace and generosity, but they rarely center those themes on the Savior who perfectly exemplified them.
Read Matthew 1:18-25.
Matthew interestingly focuses on Joseph throughout this passage. His account complements Luke’s account, given from Mary’s perspective. Mary was also visited by an angel (Lk 1:26-38). When she learned about the pregnancy of Elizabeth, she left “with haste” to be with her for several months (Lk 1:39-45). Did Joseph find out about Mary’s pregnancy second hand? At the very least, her lengthy absence likely increased the tension in Joseph’s heart. Both Luke and Matthew mention that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, his mother Mary was married to Joseph, and that Mary was a virgin when he was born. The accounts are different in the details they share, and yet compatible. J. Gresham Machen’s classic book, The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930), does a thorough job of showing how both accounts complement each other.
› This passage begins with…
The Devastation of Joseph (18-19)
Matthew informs us that Mary conceived a child “from the Holy Spirit” (18). However, Joseph does not know what we know. He assumed Mary had an affair and it left him devastated. But, out of compassion he is “unwilling to put her to shame” (19).
He was “a just man” which indicates his righteous character. He was not innocent, but—like Abraham—he was counted righteous by faith. He lived in covenant relationship with God and delighted to obey the law. Joseph is honored for having a right standing with the Lord. He trusted in the Lord and walked with Him by faith. He loved God and he loved his neighbor.
Something similar was said of John’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah. “They were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Lk 1:6). Mary also loved the Lord. Although she was probably between 12 and 15 years old, the poem she composed during her visit with Elizabeth was filled with allusions to Scripture (Lk 1:46-56).
This only compounded Joseph’s confusion and devastation.
He “resolved to divorce her quietly”. Why would he need to divorce Mary? Betrothal was a much higher commitment than engagement. It was a binding contract between two families involving the exchange of gifts or service. The couple did not live together nor were they allowed to sleep together. There was some amount of flexibility in how marriages were arranged, but once a betrothal occurred, the couple was treated as if they were married. Infidelity was equivalent to adultery at this stage.
The law allowed for the guilty parties to be stoned to death (Dt 22:23-24). But husbands could also give a certificate of divorce (Dt 24:1), which was the standard practice at that time. Joseph could have held a public trial, resulting in Mary’s shame, but he planned a quiet divorce before two witnesses (Num 5:11-31). This would have maintained Joseph’s righteous conformity to the law while also confirming his compassion for Mary.
In a moment, Joseph’s marriage was over. He had to make the hardest decision of his life, but he believed it was the only honorable thing he could do.
Most of our favorite Christmas songs are about joy and celebration. If you turn on the radio you are more likely to hear songs about snow, gifts, and romantic relationships, than you are to hear songs of heartache and longing. But the best hymns also include lament. They draw out the themes of hopes and fears. Yes, there were many hopeful expectations that were met in Bethlehem, but Christ’s birth was surrounded by characters who felt uncertainties and devastation.
We have all felt the heartache of devastation. Whether it is the result of a sudden act, or a slow building storm, we are left with a sense of hollow misery. That may define your present state as this Christmas has been filled with difficult news. May you take comfort in God’s sovereign hand over you.
Ferguson, “Joseph does not yet know that it is God’s action that has momentarily shattered his life. God sometimes does that. But only because he knows exactly what he plans to accomplish…What he did not yet know…was this: the shattering of his hopes and expectations was the prelude to the discovery of the central purpose of his whole life. From now on everything would revolve around Jesus.”
› God sends to Joseph…
The Reassurance of an Angel (20-21)
Just as Joseph resolved to divorce Mary quietly, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and reassured him that Mary’s child was conceived from the Holy Spirit (20). He told Joseph to fulfill his betrothal to Mary and to name her son “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (21).
The child Mary conceived was from God! “Veiled in flesh the godhead see. Hail the incarnate deity.” In Jesus, “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9). The eternal Word who was with God and was God (Jn 1:1) “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). God literally tabernacled among us in Jesus.
Matthew emphasizes two significant points:
• Jesus was Man—He was born of woman.
• Jesus was God—Conceived of the Holy Spirit.
It means that Jesus is both eternal in his divine nature, and sinless according to his human nature. Descendants of ordinary generation—sinned in Adam and fell with Adam (WSC 16). There was only one exception, descending from extraordinary generation. Jesus is the only man who did not inherit a sinful nature.
As God, Jesus could afford to pay the eternal penalty for our sin. As man, he could represent those he came to save. Therefore, Jesus Christ is a Mediator who is like us in every way, but different in that he is without sin, including original sin (cf. Heb. 7:26).
This news completely removed Joseph’s fears regarding Mary’s faithfulness, but I’m sure it also added a new sense of his own inadequacy. How was he qualified to take on such an important task?
God could have revealed this news to Mary and Joseph at the same time. That would have cleared up all of this confusion for him. That would have been a lot easier on everyone involved. But God had a purpose in allowing Joseph to experience these emotional hills and valleys. More challenges awaited, but he would always have the angel’s opening words in mind, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear...”
Even when relief is delayed, we know that God is working out all things for our good (Rom. 8:28). God’s revealed will is a means of comforting his people even if it raises the burden we must bear moving forward. Learning to trust God with the uncertainties of life is part of how he prepares us for the next phase of his redeeming work.
› The climax of the passage is the next verse which shows how the Savior’s virgin birth was…
The Fulfillment of Scripture (22-23)
All of this occurred in order to fulfill the Lord’s word through Isaiah 7:14 (22-23). Looking at Isaiah’s context it seems clear that this prophecy was initially fulfilled in his own day.
Isaiah 7:14–16 ESV
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.
Some have suggested that this child is King Hezekiah, or another prophet, or even a remnant of people. Many scholars think the most likely candidate is Isaiah’s own son.
Isaiah 8:3–4 ESV
And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, “Call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz; for before the boy knows how to cry ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria.”
This child is then referred to as “Immanuel” and Israel’s preservation is credited to the fact that “God is with us” (Isa. 8:8-10). Just as in 7:14, Isaiah’s children are called “signs and portents” (Isa. 8:18).
However, one chapter later, you find another Messianic prophecy regarding the child who “shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” This King of Kings will have a universal reign and establish everlasting peace. Clearly, it is not limited to an earthly king. The NT puts these prophecies together and finds their ultimate fulfillment in the birth of Jesus Christ.
But now we have a problem. If the prophecy initially pointed to Isaiah’s son, who was born of his wife, then how could it refer to her as a virgin? The Hebrew word “Alma” refers to a young girl of marriageable age, while the Greek word “parthenos” almost always refers to a virgin. The Septuagint, the Greek version of the OT, intentionally chose a word which would point to a miraculous birth. This reveals the expectation of Jewish scholars—before the advent of Christ—that the Messiah’s birth would be supernatural.
Regardless of Isaiah’s context, it is clear that Matthew and Luke, portray the birth of a child without a human father. He was not only born of a young woman, but specifically—he was born of a virgin. That is the deeper and ultimate fulfillment of all the prophecies in Isa. 7-9.
If you believe Jesus was born of a virgin, then you can believe all of the miracles he did throughout his ministry. If you believe that God came down to dwell in the midst of his people, in the person of Jesus, then you can believe his promise to always be with you “to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). If you believe Jesus accomplished salvation on the cross, then you can believe that he rose again and ascended into heaven and makes continual intercession for you—even now! These are the precious promises God has revealed to us in order to sustain us, even as they sustained Joseph.
A supernatural birth was required for a Savior who could bring reconciliation between sinful humans and a Holy God.
› And that is the meaning of…
The Name of Jesus (24-25)
When Joseph woke up he immediately obeyed the angel’s instruction. The baby was circumcised and given the name Jesus (Lk 2:21). In his human nature, Jesus had to learn the meaning of his name. His parents would have taught him that “Jesus” is derived from the Hebrew name Joshua which means “the Lord saves”. And they would have told him that they did not pick the name for him. His name came directly from God and defines the purpose for which he came.
If Jesus came to save his people from their sins, then no one is capable of saving themselves. You cannot do enough good works to merit eternal life. You cannot punish yourself enough to achieve forgiveness. If you are not justified before God in this life, you will not be justified before him in death.
Your only hope of salvation is to believe in Jesus, the one who came to “save his people from their sins.” He began the work of redemption when he entered the womb of a virgin. And he completed the work of redemption when he hung upon the cross and bore the wrath of God in our place.
“Nails, spear, shall pierce him through; the cross be borne for me, for you: hail, hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary.”
Have you called Jesus your Savior? Have you ever told him that you trust him alone to save you from your sins? Have you thanked him for dying on the cross in your place? Have you humbled yourself before the King of Kings so that he might lift up your head and call you his own? He is with us even now by his Spirit. Cry out to him in faith without delay!
Just as Matthew’s audience in the first century was in desperate need of one who would save them from their sins, so are we. There is no other way to be saved except through Jesus Christ.
The virgin birth of Jesus affirms the true deity and true humanity of the only Savior of sinners.
Jesus’ birth established his identity as the Son of God and confirms the infinite value of his substitutionary death on behalf of “his people”. If that is true, then every one of us must humble ourselves, repent of our sins, and trust in Jesus Christ for our salvation.