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Understanding the Gospel of Matthew and Why it Matters - Part 3
The Birth of Jesus Christ
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before the came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
20 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.
21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
23 "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us).
24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife,
25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
The Validity of the Virgin Birth
As Matthew continues to present his case for Jesus as the promised Messiah, he now moves to the story of Jesus' unique birth as Exhibit B. The main argument is that Jesus fulfills the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 by having been born of a virgin. This miracle is evidence that Jesus is more than just an ordinary man.
Throughout the 20th century, professing Christians increasingly joined non-Christians in denying the doctrine of the virgin birth. It is confounding that so many Christians can believe that Jesus was able to walk on water and raise the dead, yet scoff at the virgin birth as unbelievable. The Bible is clear that nothing is too hard for God, no matter how remarkable it might sound. Those who believe that a virgin birth is impossible simply need a bigger view of God.
One of the most common objections to the virgin birth is that it should not be believed because it is mentioned only twice in the New Testament. The gospels of Matthew and Luke are the only Biblical writers that speak directly of Jesus' virgin birth. Jesus Himself never brings it up in any of His teaching, nor does Paul, Peter, or any of the other inspired Apostolic writers. This argument, however, does not hold water. R. C. Sproul is right to ask "How many times does God have to say something before it is believable?" The two passages of Scripture that teach the virgin birth ought to be sufficient reason for any Christian to accept it as absolute truth. It is a very dangerous thing for someone to pick and choose what parts of the Bible he or she will accept as true. The entirety of Scripture is true, and all mankind will be held accountable for every verse. To place ourselves as a judge of the Bible and to call into question verses we may not want to readily accept smacks of sinful, human pride. If the virgin birth is untrue, then God is a liar. Though some may be willing to make that assertion, I for one will not. "Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar." We can always trust God's Word against any man's.
The virgin birth goes further than just giving evidence of Jesus as the Messiah. The virgin birth declares Jesus to be deity, the very Son of God. Joseph was not his father. God was.
No one, not even the conservative Pharisees, expected this. In fact, had Jesus not claimed to be God, He probably would have never been killed. It was the crime of blasphemy, a man declaring himself to be divine, that put Jesus on the cross. But Jesus was divine. He was truly the God-man. And His virgin birth proves it.
One of the most remarkable things about our God is that He can relate to us. He humbled Himself and became a man. He knows what its like to scrape your knee, to be hungry, to be tired, to be cold, or to have a head-ache. He has felt the sting of being betrayed by a friend. He knows the pain of having a loved one die. He even knows what it is like to be tempted. Is there a temptation that you are constantly battling in your life? Is there a sin that has left you black and blue? Then remember Hebrews 4:15-16: "We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." Whatever you may be struggling with in your life, know that Jesus can relate. Approach Him with confidence and trust Him for grace. He is ready and able to help you.
The Circumstances of the Virgin Birth
The Parents (v.18-20)
Mary was probably raised in Nazareth, the daughter of poor - though likely pious - parents. Joseph was a young and simple carpenter, the son of a man named Jacob, from who he learned his trade. Joseph and Mary's marriage was arranged by their parents, following the custom of the day, and were betrothed shortly before Mary was found to be pregnant. Mary was most likely between the ages of twelve and fourteen, Joseph was probably in his upper teens. When the appointed time had come, Joseph would have approached Mary's father and mother and presented them with a dowry - a specified amount of money that served to show that he was financially able and willing to support and care for their daughter.
Parents typically hid the dowry away so that it would be available if the new marriage fell into financial trouble. Once the bride's parents had received the dowry, Joseph and Mary would have been officially betrothed. They would have been referred to as husband and wife, and the ending of their relationship would have required a legal bill of divorce. However, they were not yet married. After being betrothed, the bride and groom were to be separated for a specified period as a time of testing. Once this time of betrothal had been endured, then the husband and wife could officially consummate the marriage.
It was during this time of testing that Mary found herself to be pregnant, and it was also during this time that she went to live with her cousin Elizabeth for a few months (who, of course, was pregnant herself with John the Baptist). One can only imagine the embarrassment that Mary must have felt as an unmarried pregnant woman in first century Israel. Her condition would have been seen by many as a fatal wound to her family's reputation. One can also only imagine the hurt and anger Joseph must have felt when he received the news that his wife was carrying a baby, knowing that it was not his. To make matters worse, the Mosaic law holds that a woman found guilty of fornication (whether premarital sex or adultery) could be stoned.
Notice, however, that what I've just described is not the whole picture of what the Bible says. Mary and Joseph were people of incredible faith. In Luke 1, we don't find Mary ashamed and cowering in fear for her life. Instead, we find her singing a song of praise to God. She says, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name."
Joseph's faith was also astounding. He had the right according to law to immediately charge Mary with infidelity and would have been given the opportunity to throw the first stone. Instead, he chose to divorce her quietly, desiring to protect her life. But after an angel appeared to him, Joseph chose to trust God and kept Mary as his wife, even though it most certainly affected his reputation. There is a lot to be learned from both Mary and Joseph about true Christian faith and obedience. Mary and Joseph, even though they were practically children, are examples for us today. Mary certainly did not remain a virgin, but her and Joseph eventually consummated their marriage and did raise a family together. Jesus' step-brothers and step-sisters will appear later on in Matthew's gospel. In his book "He Still Moves Stones", Max Lucado lists several questions he would like to ask Joseph:
? Did you and Jesus arm wrestle? Die he ever let you win?
? Did you ever look up from your prayers and see Jesus listening?
? How do you say the name Jesus in Egyptian?
? Whatever happened to the wise men?
? Whatever happened to you?
Sadly, we do not know what happened to Joseph. The overwhelming consensus among scholars is that Joseph must have died before Jesus made it to adulthood. This certainly was not uncommon in the first century, since plagues and famines and diseases were rampant and medical knowledge was limited. Whatever the case, Joseph does not appear at any time in Jesus' adult ministry.
The Child (v.21)
The angel instructed Joseph to name the child "Jesus". Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew word "Yeshua" (Joshua), which means "salvation" or "deliverance". Joshua in the Old Testament is a prototype of Jesus, appointed by God to lead His people into the Promised Land. The name Jesus was not uncommon or unusual in the first century, but was as frequent as our Tom or Mike or Bill. As the Jewish people had been waiting for a Messiah, many had named their sons Jesus as a way to express their hope of deliverance from the Romans.
Notice that Jesus has come to save His people "from" their sins. This means that He did not come to save us from just the consequences of our sin, but also from the dominion of sin. As much as Christians like to talk about free will, we should remember that the Bible says that all men are slaves. We are either a slave to Satan and sin or a slave to Jesus and holiness. When Jesus saves someone, He comes into the heart and overthrows Satan's reign. The great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon makes this comment: "Where Christ does a saving work, He casts Satan from his throne and will not let him be master any longer. No man is a true Christian if sin reigns in his mortal body. Sin will be in us?but it will never have dominion. There will be a striving for dominion - a lusting against the new law and the new spirit which God has implanted - but sin will never get the upper hand and become the absolute ruler of our nature. Christ will be the Master of the heart, and sin [will] be overcome. The Lion of the tribe of Judah will prevail, and the dragon will be cast out."
The Reason for the Virgin Birth (v.22-23)
Matthew presents us with the point of all these things by saying that they took place to fulfill the prophecy spoken by Isaiah several hundred years before. It should be noted that most Jews of the time did not consider Isaiah 7:14 to be a Messianic prophecy, but Matthew could not help but point out that Jesus' birth fell right in line with Isaiah's prediction. This is not the only time that Matthew will point out a Messianic prophecy fulfilled by Christ that was not recognized as a Messianic prophecy until its fulfillment.
Calvin describes the setting of Isaiah's prophecy this way:
"The city of Jerusalem is besieged. Ahaz [the King] trembles, and is almost dead with terror. The prophet [Isaiah] is sent to assure him that God will protect the city. But a simple promise is not sufficient to compose his agitated mind. The prophet is sent to him, saying, "Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above," (Isaiah 7:11.) That wicked hypocrite, concealing his unbelief, disdains to ask a sign. The prophet rebukes him sharply, and at length adds, "The Lord Himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." It is remarkable that Matthew, under the inspiration of God, attributes this prophecy to Jesus. By calling Jesus "Immanuel", Matthew is once again asserting Jesus' deity, since the name literally means "God with us". The whole of the incarnation can be summed up in one name: Immanuel, God with us.
A Response to the Virgin Birth (v. 24-25)
Joseph's response to the angel and his message is one of absolute faith and obedience. He did all that the angel commanded: he kept Mary as his wife, refrained from consummating the marriage until after the birth, and he named the baby Jesus. Joseph had learned the truth of the hymn long before it was written:
"Trust and obey,
How about you? Is your life characterized by faith and obedience? Is there some part of your life that you have not placed in the hands of God? Is there something God is calling you to do that you are not doing? Follow Joseph's example! God spoke to him through an angel; God is speaking to you through the Bible. Are you trusting Jesus? Are you obeying Him?
Justin Nale is pastor of Mount Hermon Missionary Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, NC.
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