When we celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmastime, our attention is most often given to Luke’s account, because it gives us so much information. It tells us of the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to the peasant girl Mary. It includes the story of the shepherds as well as the infancy hymns that are sung by Zacharias and by others during that time. Matthew’s version is much briefer.
We notice at the outset that Matthew gives his account from the viewpoint of Joseph, whereas Luke tells his account from the viewpoint of Mary. Luke assures us that what he wrote in his Gospel was well researched from eyewitnesses, and tradition affirms that Luke got much of his information from Mary herself. Of course, when Matthew wrote his Gospel he had no opportunity to interview Joseph.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows (v. 18). This opening assertion is rich in content, as brief as it is. The word used here for the birth of Jesus is gennesis. Our word genesis comes from the Greek ginomai, which means “to be, to become, or happen.” Matthew is asserting that this is how Jesus came to be, which, as we noted in the last chapter, places the birth of Jesus within the framework of history rather than mythology.
The Betrothal of Mary and Joseph
After his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit (v. 18). This takes place after betrothal and prior to marriage. In our society, a betrothal is considered to be an engagement between two people who intend to become married at a certain time, yet there are countless occasions in which engagements are broken and the marriage never comes to pass. Among the Jews in Jesus’ day, however, a betrothal was far more serious. It was an unbreakable pledge customarily undertaken one year before the wedding, and it carried almost the weight of marriage itself; it was so close that it required virtually a writ of divorce to end it.
Following betrothal the bride remained under the roof of her parents. She would not move into the home of her husband until after the actual marriage. Therefore, it was serious when a betrothed woman was discovered to be with child; the implications of such a pregnancy were enormous in Jewish society and could, indeed, result in execution of the woman who violated her betrothal by becoming pregnant. Yet we are told here in Matthew that before Mary came together with Joseph, “she was found with child of the Holy Spirit.” The father of this child in Mary’s womb was not some illicit lover, nor was it Joseph; the paternity was accomplished through the supernatural activity of the Holy Spirit. In the Apostles’ Creed we recite, “Jesus Christ . . . was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary . . .” Those two miraculous aspects—His conception and His birth—were integral to the faith of the Christian church of the early centuries. Jesus’ conception was extraordinary, not natural but supernatural, accomplished by the divine work of the Spirit, and as a result a baby born to a virgin.
Perhaps no assertion of biblical Christianity fell under greater attack by nineteenth-century liberalism than the account of the virgin birth. For some reason more attention was given to that than to the resurrection. Because the story is so blatantly supernatural, it became a stumbling block to those who tried to reduce the essence of the Christian faith to all that can be accomplished through natural humanity.
When Mary’s pregnancy was discovered, Joseph, being a just man—one who was also kind and gave detailed attention to the observance of the law of God, not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly (v. 19). He was not willing to call down the wrath of the courts upon his betrothed, and he decided to deal with it from a spirit of compassion. After he thought it over deeply and carefully, he decided to divorce her or put her away in a private manner, so as to save his betrothed from total public humiliation.
While he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David” (v. 20). The New Testament makes so much out of the fact that Jesus is the Son of David that it’s almost amazing to find Joseph being given that same title, but this is also important for the lineage of Jesus. For Jesus to be a Son of David in Jewish categories, legally His father also had to be a son of David. That is why the angel gives this honorific title to Joseph when he addresses him, saying, Do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit (v. 20). This is the second time in this brief narrative that the conception of Christ in the womb of Mary is attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit.
In Luke’s version, when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she has conceived the child and will bring forth a baby, she was stunned and said, “How can this be since I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34). The angel replied, “With God nothing will be impossible” (v. 35).
Then Gabriel explained to Mary how the birth would take place. The Holy Spirit would overshadow her so that the child would be born as a result of this supernatural work. Luke uses the same language that is used at the dawn of creation: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the earth” (Gen. 1:1), and then we are told that the Holy Spirit came and hovered over the waters, and God said, “Let there be light” (v. 3). In the act of creation, the Spirit is moving on the face of the deep, and out of the nothingness of that darkness God, through the power of His Spirit, brings forth the whole of creation.
From the biblical perspective, the genesis of life in the first place was through the power of the Spirit of life, of the Spirit of God. Gabriel was declaring to Mary that same power by which the universe was made; that same power that brought life out of the darkness originally is the power that will overshadow her womb and produce a son. God doesn’t need a human father to bring this to pass.
The Authority to Name
So do not be afraid, Joseph, to take Mary as your wife. She will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins (v. 21). It was the privilege of Jewish parents to name their children. The very first enterprise given to humanity in the garden was the scientific task of taxonomy, that is, the task of naming the animals, and in that task of naming, the superior names the subordinate. God gave to Adam and Eve the responsibility and authority to name everything in the animal kingdom. Yet throughout the Old Testament, when a child was born into specific historical and redemptive purposes, God took away the privilege from the parent and named the child himself, indicating that the child belonged to Him.
That is what happened with Zacharias in the birth of John the Baptist. God told Zacharias what to name his son (Luke 1:13). The same thing happens here in Matthew. The Lord is saying to Joseph, “You are not going to choose a name for this boy. You will name Him what I tell you to name Him, because ultimately He is my Son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” The etymology behind that name is “Jehovah saves.” Name Him Jesus “for He will save His people from their sins.”
The idea of salvation in the Bible in general means some kind of rescue from a threat of destruction or calamity, and the highest, ultimate sense of salvation is rescue from the worst of all possible calamities. The worst calamity that could ever befall human beings is to fall under the judgment of God for their sin. That is the calamity that awaits every person who does not rush to Christ for salvation. However, the baby is called “Jesus” because He is a savior, and He will save His people from the consequences of their sins.
The Virgin Birth
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” (vv. 22–23). This verse, in which Matthew is quoting Isaiah, was sharply attacked by the critics of the nineteenth century. In the Jewish language there are two words that can be used to describe a virgin. The most precise and technical word is not the one that Isaiah chose. Rather, Isaiah chose the other word, which can be translated “young woman” or, more appropriately, “maiden,” which presumes virginity but doesn’t necessitate it. The critics point to that and say that Isaiah wasn’t speaking of a virgin but saying only that a young woman, a maiden, would conceive. Therefore, the critics say, the Bible does not teach a virgin birth. That’s what we call the exegesis of despair, because if you just give a cursory look at the context of this text, there is no doubt that Matthew is teaching that Jesus was born from the womb of a woman who had never been with a man—a virgin.
Isaiah said, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14), but here in Matthew the angel says they will call His name “Jesus.” Those names are not the same, and they do not mean the same thing. Isaiah does not tell us why they will call Him “Immanuel.” The term Immanuel describes what Christ does. It describes the event of incarnation. He will be called Immanuel because He will be the incarnate presence of God with us, but His proper Jewish name will be Jesus, because “He will save his people from their sins.”
So Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus (vv. 24–25). This reflects not only the obedience and submission of Joseph to what the angel had directed him to do but also that Joseph fully embraces Jesus as his son and fulfills the legal requirements of the genealogy that we examined in the last chapter. Joseph did this even though the child’s name was not selected by him but by the angel. In the ultimate sense, Jesus was named by God, who is His ultimate Father. In the proximate sense, Jesus was named by Joseph, who was given the unspeakable privilege of being the Lord Jesus Christ’s earthly father.