The King is Born
“The Christmas Story.” I’m not sure what comes to your mind when you hear that phrase. Maybe it’s curled up by a fireplace with your family on December 25, reading from the Bible together. Maybe it’s memories from your childhood where you were forced to wear a bathrobe or sheep ears and recite lines in front of your church which you had barely memorized.
Whatever the setting, my guess is that when we think about the “Christmas Story,” the particular words which come to mind are those of Luke chapter 2. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered…And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:1, 8).
I have nothing against Luke and his account, but I feel like Matthew’s account gets lost in the mix sometimes. After all, our passage today—Matthew 1:18-25—is about “the birth” or, more literally, “the genesis of Jesus Christ.” Matthew has a very different focus than Luke. He’s reporting on different facets of the story. And what he has to say might appear to be less dramatic than Luke’s story, but I think we’ll find that there is just as much drama, just as much feeling and meaning and significance in Matthew’s story as anywhere else.
One of the striking features about Matthew’s version of the Christmas story is how it feels like what we might call an Old Testament story. Readers of Scripture will be familiar with childless women like Sarah and Rachel and Hannah who were given children through a miracle of the Lord. Angels showing up to make announcements, revelations through dreams, righteous men being told in advance about a birth—this is all familiar territory in the story of God’s people.
So Matthew’s story is very much a part of the world of what we might call the Old Testament, and is framed in patterns and language that was deeply familiar and deeply significant to God’s people.
So we’re going to dig in and follow along this morning. And we’re going to see that there’s five basic sections in Matthew’s story. Four of those are episodes or events, and one of them is a comment that Matthew makes to explain those events. And those five stops are going to be our roadmap this morning as we walk through this passage and learn what we can.
1. Mary Is Found to Be Pregnant
The first episode or event in this passage is found in verse 18: Mary is found to be with chid. She’s “found to be with child.” Now for a woman to be found to be with child man or may not be a significant event. For Mary, this was a majorly significant event because of when and how this discovery unfolded.
In terms of “when,” verse 18 tells us that when Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child.
“Betrothed” basically means “engaged.” But engagement or betrothal in the 1st C was a much bigger deal than it is today. Back then you made legally binding agreement where you pledged yourself to marry this other person. You weren’t yet married to them, and you weren’t yet supposed to live together or be intimate together, but you were pledged to them in such a way that they were already considered to be your husband or wife.
And in that stage in their relationship, Mary is found to be with child. Now Matthew tells us the big “how.” Mary was pregnant before she was married because “that which [was] conceived in her [was] from the Holy Spirit” (v. 20). That’s what verse 18 says. She was “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”
Matthew doesn’t tell us all the detail here that we know from Luke’s gospel: about the angel’s announcement to Mary and her reaction to that message. All that Matthew tells us is that this child was from the Holy Spirit.
The significance of this virgin conception will be drawn out and explained by Matthew later in verse 22. But at this point, what Matthew strongly implies is that those closest to Mary had a really hard time believing her story.
Just put yourself in Joseph’s shoes. You’re engaged to someone who was probably very young—in her teens—and you yourself might be fairly young, perhaps 18 or so. And your fiancée goes away for three months to another part of the country, and she comes back with a baby bump. And she says, “no, no, no, it’s the Holy Spirit who made this happen.” Would you believe her?
2. Joseph Makes Plans to End Their Betrothal
And so that brings us to verse 19 and the second episode or event in this passage: Joseph makes plans to end their betrothal.
The law of Moses was very clear that being intimate before marriage, especially when you were betrothed to someone else, was wrong. It could earn you the death penalty.
And verse 19 says that Joseph was a “just man.” Just can also mean “righteous.” Joseph knew what was right and he knew what was wrong. And it seemed clear to him that what was going on here with Mary was not right. And that’s going to make a “just man” like Joseph really hesitant to go ahead and marry someone like this.
Not only does Mary’s situation suggest that she has been unrighteous, but if Joseph goes ahead and marries her it could suggest that he was the father of this child. And that’s going to reflect quite poorly on him and his status as a righteous person. So he’s got some really big reasons here to not proceed with his marriage to Mary. Joseph is a just man, a righteous man.
But he’s not just a just man. He’s also a compassionate man. And that’s represented here in verse 19 by these words, “unwilling to put her to shame.” Joseph’s sense of right and wrong was matched by a genuine concern for his fiancée and that she not be “put to shame.”
In the world of the first century, the experiences of “honour” and “shame” drove so much of their lives. If Joseph would have publicly exposed Mary’s experience, that would not just have exposed her as a guilty person. That guilt would have brought with it shame. She would have been a shamed person who would have been permanently changed in the eyes of her culture. Even if she avoided the death penalty she would have lived with the experience of shame and rejection and broken relationships for the rest of her life.
And Joseph was unwilling to put her to shame. He had compassion on her. And yet he was a just man. He could not ignore what happened. So what was he supposed to do?
Verse 19 finishes up by telling us: he “resolved to divorce her quietly.” Keep it quiet, don’t expose her to shame, but also don’t get himself entangled in what appeared to be her sin. And truthfully, given what Joseph knew at the time, this was probably his best option.
3. God Intervenes
Here’s the problem, though. If Joseph divorced Mary, and Mary gave birth to her son as a single mom, then the ancestry of Jesus would always remain in question.
According to Jewish understanding, genealogies were traced through the father. The line to the throne was traced from father to son, like we saw last week. So if Jesus was going to be a legitimate heir to the throne of David, it was really important for him to have an adoptive human father who was himself an heir of David. And this would ensure that Jesus had a legitimate legal claim to the throne of David.
This might sound strange to you. He’s the Son of God—can’t he do what He wants? Well yes, He is the son of God. But He came as a man. And what we see is that Jesus, as a man, plays by the rules. His parents offered sacrifices for him in the temple, even though He was without sin. He was baptized, even though He had nothing to repent of. Jesus had come to do what we had failed to do, and that meant that He played by all of the rules as a man. And so if He was going to rule as God’s anointed king, He needed a man who was a legitimate descendant of David to adopt Him as his own son.
And so Joseph can’t divorce Mary. God has to do something here. And that’s what we find in our third episode this morning. Verse 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’” (Matthew 1:20).
“Joseph, son of David.” Get the significance of that? Joseph is a son of David. And if he takes Mary to be his wife, then this means that Mary’s child will be a legal candidate to fulfill God’s covenant with David. Next, we should notice that the angel tells him that Mary’s story is legit. “That which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” “She’s not lying, Joseph.” So he shouldn’t fear to take her as his wife.
Then the angel tells him what’s going to happen: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (v. 21).
Oh, there’s so much for us to see here. “You shall call his name.” Notice that Joseph is being told what to do here? Verse 24 confirms this—that the angel is commanding him. This his an important reminder about God’s authority in our life. We sometimes like to think that God makes suggestions to us which we’re free to accept or reject. But, far more often than we think, God tells us what to do. Our response is obedience, all the way, the first time.
And by the way, parents, that’s why its so important that you train your children to do the same. Obey quickly all the way the first time with a cheerful attitude. As we train them to do this, we’re training them to respond to God properly. If you let your kids argue with you and obey when they feel like it, how is that preparing them to follow the Lord?
But that’s an aside. Notice what the angel says next. “You shall call his name Jesus.” Remember what we learned last week? “Jesus” is basically the Greek form of “Joshua.” It means “Yahweh Saves” or “God saves.” It’s a name that recalls Joshua who led Israel into the promised land. Jesus is the new Joshua.
But this new Joshua is so much more greater than the first. Just think about it: “Joshua” means “God saves.” And so the angel is saying, “Call his name ‘God saves,’ because He is going to save His people from their sins.”
If God saves, and if this baby is going to save, then who is this baby? God.
We should not be surprised by that, being told twice that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. But what an amazing connection to make. This connection is even stronger when we the echo in the angel’s words from Psalm 130 which we read at the beginning of our service today. “O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities” (Psalm 130:7–8).
Who will redeem Israel from his sins? God. So if that baby is going to save His people from their sins, then who is that baby? God.
Can you imagine how much this would have been to take in? First of all, that your fiancée is pregnant with a divine child. God as a fetus. And second, that God had come down as a fetus in order to do the one thing that nobody else had been able to do from Adam’s failure in the garden up until that point.
The best leaders, the best kings, none of them had been able to save Israel from his sins. And that’s why Israel spun downwards into exile and that’s why, even after being brought back to the land, they were still in exile, still under the thumb of Rome, still pressed and lost and broken.
It was their sin. That’s what they needed to be saved from. And faithful Jews waited for salvation from their sins, like Psalm 130 says, “more than watchmen for the morning.” Have you ever spent an entire night awake and the only thing you long for is the sun to rise? That was what it felt like in those dark years.
And this Jesus, this New Joshua, this God in the flesh, was the sun finally peeking over the horizon. He was finally going to save His people, and in fact all peoples, once and for all. It’s hard for us to take in how good this news is, and how good this news would have been to Joseph. But here it is.
Now we’re left on a little bit of a cliffhanger here, because we want to find out: did Joseph obey? Did he so what he was supposed to do?
But Matthew interrupts the narrative at this point with a comment about what’s really going on here, and what all of these events are really about. Verse 22: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matthew 1:22–23).
All this—the conception of Jesus, his birth, and even his naming of this divine name by Joseph—it all took place to fulfill what the Lord has spoken by the prophet, which was that a virgin would conceive and bear a son, and they would call him a name that meant “God with us.”
Here in verse 23 Matthew is quoting from Isaiah 7:14. And as English readers we miss that from verse 18 onwards, this whole passage has been full of references and language coming from that passage. In the original language, the phrase “to be with child” in verse 18 is the same as “conceive” from verse 23. There’s even an echo in the word “behold” in verse 20 and then “bear a son” and “call his name” in verse 21. Matthew has been intentionally using language from this prophecy to show that it is so clearly fulfilled by these events.
Now here’s what’s interesting: if you go back and read Isaiah chapter 7, it’s not immediately clear that there’s a really firm connection between that chapter and the events in Matthew 1.
Isaiah 7 features the king of Israel who was being threatened by two foreign nations. And God promises the king that He’s going to destroy these two nations, and He gives the king a sign that this will happen: “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” (Isaiah 7:14–16).
Like I said, this is interesting. Because when you first read Isaiah 7 it could sound like a son is going to be born to them in that time, and that before this child is old enough to know wrong from right, the land of these two invading forces will be destroyed.
And that’s caused some people to criticize Matthew and say that he’s really missing the point here.
But if we go back to Isaiah 7 and keep reading through chapter 8 and 9, we’ll see that there’s more going on. The picture we get is that yes, there may have been a child born the normal way in Isaiah’s day. But this child was just another shadow, just another pointer, to an even greater child who would truly be born of a virgin, who would Himself be God with us.
And this becomes clear when we realize that the train of thought in Isaiah 7 runs along all the way to these words in chapter 9: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 9:6–7).
There’s no way that’s talking about a merely human child born in Isaiah’s day. And so Matthew, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is right to point us to Isaiah 7:14 and say, “That’s a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. Born of a virgin, really, truly, the mighty God Himself with us.”
And this is what Matthew wants us to know: that Jesus is the true and complete fulfillment of these ancient promises. And that’s why His birth happened in the way that it did.
5. Joesph Obeys
And so we come to the last stop, the last episode in our passage today, where we find that we can move back from the edges of our seats a little, because Joseph does, indeed, obey: “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (Matthew 1:24–25).
Joseph follows through. Even though it could have meant that he wore the shame of Mary’s pregnancy, he obeyed, taking Mary as his wife, and adopting her son as his legal heir. This is confirmed when Joseph gives him the name Jesus. Jesus is truly, officially, a legitimate legal heir to king David. He qualifies to fulfill those prophecies as well.
While Joseph was Jesus’ legal father, Matthew makes sure we know what was really going on in verse 25: Joseph “knew her not until she had given birth to a son.” There’s no doubt here that Jesus really did fulfill the prophecy by truly being born of a virgin.
For Us Today: 3 Truths
So there is the story today, found in four episodes and one editorial comment. There’s a lot there, isn’t there? As we step back to look on the passage, I want to suggest three main lessons or truths we can take home with us today.
1: Joseph the Example
First, let’s recognize the example that Joseph is for us. In so many of our stories and songs about Christmas, we focus on Mary, but Matthew really shines the spotlight on Joseph here. And there’s a lot we can learn from him.
Men, let me ask you specifically this morning: are you known by others as a “just” or a “righteous” man? Do you care about what’s right as intensely as Joseph did? And yet, are you also a man of compassion? Do you care about other people more than you care about being right?
Are you willing to absorb personal shame, even having your own reputation tarnished, in order to extend love and safety and protection to the vulnerable in your life? Are you a quick obeyer, doing immediately what God commands without arguing with Him? Are you a man of purity who is able to control himself, a man who could take Mary as your wife and yet know her now until after she had given birth to a son?
These are all the kinds of questions our passage asks us this morning as we consider Joseph and the example he is to us. And we’d be missing a lot if we didn’t ask God to give us the faith and character of this man of God.
2. God Moves in a Mysterious Way
The second take-home truth for us this morning is just to consider the strange and difficult ways of God. Think about how the promise of the ages—literally the best news in the history of the word—came to Joseph and Mary in such a difficult, painful, awkward, even shameful way.
They probably didn’t expect this, did they? They probably didn’t expect that bearing the promised Messiah would mean also bearing the suspicion and shame of scandal. Just imagine the vulnerability in Mary’s heart as she anticipated divorce and single-motherhood—which had way bigger stigmas in that culture than they do in ours. God brought the best news possible in the context of some really awkward and painful human circumstances. Mary and Joseph suffered as they received this greatest gift.
And yet this is so often how God works, doesn’t He? He promised Abraham a son, and then made him wait 25 years before fulfilling that promise. Or think about God’s words about Paul: “he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15–16).
Playing an important role in the work of God goes hand-in-hand with suffering, with difficulty, with having our faith tested, with struggling. It’s usually not like “Facing the Giants,” where we surrender our life to the Lord and get a new truck and a new baby and a new football championship all dropped in our lap. A more biblical story would be a guy who has all of those things, and God takes them all away from him, and he continues to serve the Lord anyways.
Are you okay with this? What would you rather have: a nice, comfortable life, or to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant” from the lips of Jesus when you meet him some day? There will probably be many times in your life when you’ll need to choose between the two. Are you okay with that? Are you okay to join the ranks of faithful sufferers who look to their heavenly reward?
3. He is Here!
Third, let’s rejoice in the main point of this passage. God saved us! He kept His ancient promises. He sent the Saviour to do what none other had been able to do before Him: save His people from their sin.
He came for us. He came for you. This week as I worked through this passage I was reminded of the movie “World Trade Center,” which follows along with two firefighters who were trapped in the rubble at the bottom of the collapsed tower on 9/11. They were barely hanging on to life that night when they were found by two rescuers.
And that moment in the movie is so profound when the realize that someone has come for them. But they’re still so afraid of being left there. And one of their rescuers calls down and says “We’re not leaving you buddy… you are our mission.”
Hear that truth for you this morning. Jesus came for us. He has a mission: to save His people from their sin. That mission took Him to the cross where He took the penalty for our sin, and that mission led Him out of the grave and to the Father’s side where He sent His Spirit who frees us from the power of our sin, and that mission will bring Him back to earth to resurrect His people so that sin can never touch them again.
And if you know Jesus this morning, if you’ve repented and trusted in Him, then you are His mission. You’re a part of His people, and He has and He will save you fully and completely from your sin.
Let’s not forget that the same goes for all of Jesus’ people from every tribe, language, people and nation. They are his mission, too. And today, Jesus is fulfilling his mission through us. Who are the people in your life, buried under the rubble of sin, who need to know that someone has come for them? And who are the people around the world who don’t have anyone in their lives who can tell them that someone has come for them? Who will go to tell them of the Promised One who will save them from their sin?
We’re about to sing that song again—“He is here.” Rejoice in your heart that Jesus has come for you. And ask the Lord to be filled with a desire that other voices would join you in celebrating this same truth.