1:18-25: Jesus’ Birth
The story of Jesus’ birth is told in five parts, each centered around the fulfillment of a prophecy. The first part completes chapter one, and is the fullfilment of Isaiah 7:14-15, in which Isaiah is told by the Lord to reassure Ahaz, king of Judah. Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and Syria had allied together and laid seige to Jerusalem. God assured Ahaz that they would not succeed, and that the Northern Kingdom would fall. God even offered to give Ahaz a sign that it would come to pass, but Ahaz deferred, saying he didn’t want to tempt the Lord. God was unimpressed. He then gave Isaiah prophecies of God’s judgements, but also promises of His mercy, including a saviour:
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.
Isaiah 7: 14-15
Immanuel means, as Matthew says, ‘God with us’, but Joseph is also instructed to actually name the child Jesus, because “he shall save his people from their sins.” The name Jesus means, 'Jehovah is salvation.' God is our source of salvation. It is a transliteration of the name Yeshua into Greek. Translated into English it is Joshua. The Greek language had dominated the eastern Mediterranean for three centuries by the time Jesus was born. While we assume his name actually was Yeshua, or an Aramaic version of the same, by the time of His birth it wasn’t uncommon for Jews to actually use the Greek version and it is the only version of His name found in scripture.
The angel speaks to Joseph. Throughout this account in Matthew the angel speaks only to Joseph, which reinforces the idea that this account, and its genealogy, are from his side of the family. The angel isn’t named, but, according to Luke, Gabriel spoke to Mary and its believed he spoke to Joseph too.
The account given by Matthew is very simple: Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, sexually, she was pregnant. Joseph decided to break the engagement, but before he did an angel came to assure him that Mary’s pregnancy was not what it appeared. God himself was the father. Though these scriptures don’t speak of ‘God the father’, rather, it’s the Holy Ghost. Throughout the Old Testament, when God acted in this world, it was said that His Spirit, the Spirit of the Lord, came, acted, or inspired. The same thing happened here. In fulfillment of the prophecy God had given Ahaz a virgin was pregnant and the messiah was about to be born. And we believe this because we know Him. We know the Risen Saviour.
And Mary believed because the angel Gabriel told her. She would have known she was pregnant and that she was a virgin, but not how such a thing could be. Joseph knew because an angel told him. But what of the people around them? An engagement was not a trivial matter; everyone knew that Mary was Joseph’s. And not only was she pregnant, it wasn’t his child. I don’t know if it’s possible for us today, at least in the West, to appreciate what that meant, but it links her to the four women already mentioned in this chapter. Like them, her life knew shame and humiliation. Yet, unlike them, hers came as a result of God’s blessing. How often do we despise the blessings of the Lord, taking our measure from the world?
What has always stood out to me in this passage was Joseph’s reaction, before the angel spoke to him, to the news of her pregnancy:
Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily.
My copy of Vine’s tells me that the word ‘just’ “denotes righteousness, a state of being right, or right conduct, judged by the Divine standard, or according to human standards of what is right.” And how does a just man repsond to this news? He didn’t want to marry her, it wasn’t his child, but he didn’t want to shame her either. By the day’s standards she was his and her pregnancy was a mark against his honour as much as hers, but he was happy to let that go. He didn’t see any value in humiliating her. People would talk. Both their reputations would be forever linked to this scandal. But because he was a righteous man, he didn’t see any need to strike out. To show the world that he was blameless; that the situation was not his fault. And when he received instructions on the matter from the Lord, he believed and he acted. He wed Mary, ignoring what others might say, he didn’t touch her until the baby was born, and then he named the child Jesus.
Much is made of Christ’s humility, and rightly so, but he had more than a heavenly Father to turn to for guidance. He had two earthly examples.