Birth of the King, Matthew, Part One

Matthew 1:18—2:23

This might very well be the most famous Bible story ever.  Even people who have absolutely no relationship with God know “the Christmas story.”  Over the years, there have been dozens of motion pictures made about this singular event, some very good, many not.  During the month of December, this is the passage of Scripture most often preached; most Christians think they know the story well.  Let’s find out how well you know it.

1.  Matthew and the Jewish Messiah

Though Matthew’s Gospel is placed first in our Bibles, it was probably not written first.  Most scholars tell us that Mark was written long before any of the others Gospels, and while Luke gives us many additional details, Matthew gives us a unique perspective on the birth of Jesus:  the Jewish perspective.  Matthew uses three devices to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus:

First, Matthew chooses his opening words carefully.  He begins his Gospel like this—

This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham.

The word “genealogy” comes from the Greek word genesis, which is the title of the first book of our Bible and the first book of the Jewish Bible.  There are other wording parallels in the opening verses of Matthew which would point the Jewish reader back to the Old Testament.

Next, Matthew uses Old Testament scripture liberally to support and validate the fact that this Baby, Jesus, was in reality the long awaited Messiah.  For example, Jesus’ lineage is traced all the way back to Abraham, the founder of the Jewish nation!   Furthermore, to stress Jesus’ legitimacy, Matthew makes it plain that Mary and Joseph were both descendants of King David.  If any Jewish boy had a claim to the throne of David, it was the boy named Jesus born on Christmas!

Finally, at the close of his summary of Jesus’ genealogy, Matthew abruptly changes his pattern of describing the long family line.  According to Matthew, Joseph was not the father of Jesus; he was merely the husband of Mary!

and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah. (Matthew 1:16)

Matthew, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, skillfully uses his natural talents as a writer to implicitly underscore what was so important to the Jewish readers of his day:  this Jesus, Son of Mary and Joseph, is the Messiah prophesied centuries ago by their very own prophets.

2.  Birth of the Messiah, 1:18—25

This group of verses (1:18—2:23) actually has a name among Bible scholars:  the Infancy Narratives and it is paralleled in Luke 1:5—2:52.  While Matthew and Luke tell the same story, their versions couldn’t be more different, yet they don’t contradict each other.  There are five areas of complete agreement:

  • Jesus’ birth was miraculous; He was virgin-born;
  • Mary and Joseph were “espoused” to each other when God’s will was made known to them;
  • Christ was to be called “Jesus”;
  • He was born in Bethlehem;
  • He was raised in Nazareth.

A tricky situation, verses 18, 19

Matthew begins the story of Jesus with His “birth.”  The word translated “birth” in the tNIV and most modern translations is the same word translated “genealogy” in 1:1.  What Matthew is beginning at in verse 18 is really the “history of Jesus Christ” on earth.

Mary was “espoused” or “betrothed” to Joseph, and while we traditionally view this situation as their “engagement,” the Jewish tradition of “espousal” was much more serious and binding than our tradition of “engagement.”  In a sense, Mary and Joseph were already married at this time, even though the formal wedding ceremony was yet to come.  Notice that during this period of “espousal,” Joseph is called Mary’s husband (v. 19) and Mary is referred to as his wife (v. 20).  The Old Testament Law made it clear that unfaithfulness in an “espoused” woman was punishable by death (Deuteronomy 22:23—24).

What made Mary’s pregnancy so ticklish a situation to deal with was that even though considered married, the couple was not living together and they were not having any kind of physical relationship; so how was Mary’s pregnancy going to be explained?   Mary knew the truth about her condition because the angel Gabriel told her (Luke 1:26—35).  But for Joseph, this was a problem.  He was a good man, and because of his beliefs he felt that he could not go through with the marriage.  Joseph was also a man of mercy, and he obviously loved Mary deeply, so he did not want her to be humiliated or embarrassed in any way.  Joseph’s practical solution was to “divorce” her quietly, which meant presenting his pregnant wife with a bill of divorcement in front of only two witnesses, as opposed to dragging her to court and suing her for divorce.  Remember, Joseph was not yet privy to the divine plan.

God’s solution, verses 20—23

Poor Joseph; we can only imagine how many nights he paced the floor, trying to figure out what to do!  Finally, God intervened with a dream.  During this dream, an unnamed angel from God comes to Joseph and gives him the same information Mary was given (Luke 1:35).  Joseph now knew what Mary knew:  it was by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit that Mary had conceived.   Notice how the angel addresses Joseph—

Joseph son of David. (verse 1:20)

This is what gave Jesus the legal right to the throne of David and it also served to encourage and strengthen Joseph.  Even though Mary was given a great honor, it would be through Joseph’s connection to the House of David that the Messianic right to the throne would be transmitted to Jesus.  Mary was important, but in order for Jesus to be recognized as the legitimate heir to the Davidic promise, Joseph, husband to Mary and father to Jesus, was indispensable!

Joseph, described by Matthew as “righteous,” was also a man of faith.  The angel told him, “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife,” which indicates that Joseph had already decided to do just that before God intervened.   Poor Joseph!  He didn’t know what was going on, but he loved Mary and the private divorce was out of the question.  Perhaps that’s why God waited so long before filling Joseph in on His divine plan; the Lord was testing Joseph, waiting for him to arrive at the right decision, then blessing him with a supernatural visitation.

There is a real lesson for all who would live by faith:  sometimes living by faith means stepping out in faith, maybe without clear direction, trusting that the clear direction needed will be forthcoming.

With this reassurance from the angel, Joseph must have been greatly relieved.  God never leaves His faithful followers in the dark.  Mary needed to know God’s will to save her from the terrifying confusion and fear surrounding her mysterious pregnancy.  Joseph needed to know to save  him from thinking Mary had been unfaithful to him.

With verse 21, the angel focuses on the baby.

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.   (verse 21)

The awesome power of this verse is often overlooked because it is so simple.  A lot of people had (and continue to have) an interest in the birth of this child:

  • The Holy Spirit, for it was by His power the child was conceived;
  • Mary, who because of her willing obedience became “blessed among women”;
  • Joseph, who along with Mary, was going to raise this child to adulthood;
  • The Jews, for the child would be named “Jesus,” for He would save “His people” from their sins.  “His people” refers to Jewish people.

Though to Joseph and to the readers of Matthew’s Gospel the phrase “His people” most definitely referred to Jews, it would not be long before it became apparent that both Jesus and His cousin, John the Baptist, viewed the divine mission as including all people; the phrase “His people” came to refer not only to Jews, but to all who by faith believed in Jesus as the Messiah.  So “His people” are the Messiah’s people.  We know from Paul’s writings later on that salvation came first to the Jews, then to the everyone else.

What does it mean to be “saved from sins?”  It was so important that Joseph name the Baby “Jesus” that he was not only given the name, as Mary was, but he was given the reason.  The angel told Joseph this in a very strange way in the Greek, where literally it reads like this:

You will call his name Jesus.

It’s an odd construction that is seen only here in the New Testament; a phrase that is not only a Semitism (written the way a Jew might say it,) but one written in the future indicative with imperative force.  It was as though Joseph was told:  “You will call the Baby by His name, which is Jesus.”

The name “Jesus” is an unremarkable name; there were many boys and men in Israel with that name, it is a variant of the name “Joshua,” and actually means “God is salvation.”  But the angel embellishes the literal name by adding:  “from their sins.”  The Messiah’s primary mission did not include social, political, or even physical salvation, but rather moral and spiritual salvation.  Jesus came to do away with sin once and for all time (Hebrews 9:26); He came to save man from sin, not in sin (Ralph Earle).   Salvation includes the following:

  • Freedom from the greatest evil that has ever plagued man:  the guilt, pollution, power, and punishment of sin;
  • To be given the greatest blessings a man can ever receive:  peace, love, joy, contentment, unspeakable happiness, answered prayer, etc.

To be saved from something implies being saved for something else.  No wonder this Baby needed to called Jesus!  Anyone who has experienced salvation through His grace knows how precious the name “Jesus” is.

Fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, v. 23

Matthew’s Gospel was written mainly with the Jewish reader in mind, and so Matthew quotes frequently from the Old Testament.  One such quotation is from the famous Christmas prophecy in Isaiah 7:14.  Volumes have been written about this single verse, but the Holy Spirit gives us the final fulfillment and context here in the Gospel:  Mary is the virgin; Jesus is her son, Immanuel.  Of course, Jesus was never called “Immanuel” as far as we know, so what did Isaiah mean when he wrote his prophecy?   There is no greater blessing for a human being than the knowledge that God is with them; that His presence in their midst is a reality.  Jesus is the only one who could have been called “God with us” because Jesus was not just a Baby, but God Himself in the flesh.  The mystery into which Mary and Joseph had been drawn is the mystery we all struggle to grasp:  the Incarnation; the day God became a man so as to affect man’s salvation.   But notice the exact wording of Matthew 1:25 and compare it to the exact wording of Isaiah 7:14—

The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).  (Matt. 1:25)

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isa. 7:14)

The difference is subtle but perhaps very meaningful.  In Isaiah 7:14, it is the virgin who will call her baby “Immanuel.”  In Matthew, it is not the virgin; it is “they.”  Who is “they?”  Perhaps Matthew is referring to Mary and Joseph, but could “they” not refer to all believers who have experienced the Messiah’s forgiveness of sins?  For all of us who have reached out in faith and claimed Jesus Christ as our personal Messiah, we can say with certainty “God is with us” because we experience His presence every day in our lives!   We cling to what Jesus promised in Matthew 28:20—

Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

(c)  2009 WitzEnd


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