“What’s in a name?” so questions Juliet. There may be much in a name. Some of us are named after loved and respected family members. We carry in our name the remembrance of someone else. Others of us are named for others outside the family – perhaps for a president or a famous athlete or star. Some of us are given names for their meanings – Grace, Joy, Christian. Joseph and Mary had no say over the name of their first child. It wasn’t family that insisted on his name, but an angel of the Lord. He was not named for anyone else, not for what character was hoped for him, but for the purpose for which he was born in the first place.
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.
I suppose what Matthew means is that the birth took place from this perspective that he is about to give. Scholars speculate the order that the gospels were written in. I will not bore you with the theories, but when it comes to the accounts of Jesus’ birth, it would be interesting to know whether Matthew or Luke wrote the first account. The reason is this. The authors do not conflict with each other, but they do certainly approach Jesus’ birth from two contrasting perspectives. It is as if Luke interviewed Jesus’ mother, Mary, and Matthew interviewed the father, Joseph. Reading Luke’s story, Joseph is a minor figure in the story, and Mary gets most of the attention. In Matthew’s story Joseph is the main character. Let us then look at the birth of Jesus through the eyes of Joseph.
When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they 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.
We need to understand the culture and times in which the story takes place to get the impact of this sentence. In our culture and times, to hear of an engaged woman being pregnant hardly raises an eyebrow. If there is disapproval, it is not over the revelation that a couple had relations before marriage, but that they did not take appropriate precautions.
In Joseph’s and Mary’s day, however, such a revelation brought great shame to the couple. They lived in a society bound not simply by moral customs, but by divine law. To have premarital relations is to transgress God’s law. It is shameful sin. The Jews understood and valued sexual purity. To break that law meant that a couple was unchaste, defiled, and further brought shame on the child, the fruit of that union.
The concept of being betrothed, or engaged, also differed from our concept. For us, to become engaged is little more than declaring that a couple intends to make a commitment of marriage. That engagement can be broken at any time with no consequences other than the obvious emotional ones. When Joseph and Mary became betrothed, they entered into a commitment that was as strong as marriage vows. Note in verse 19 that Joseph is referred to as Mary’s husband. To break the engagement required the same action as getting a divorce.
Assuming that Joseph and Mary’s situation followed the typical custom of their times, they had been engaged – i.e. planned to be married – much earlier by their parents who would have made an agreement. Such customs are still practiced today in Eastern and Mid-Eastern countries. Thus they would have become engaged in younger years by their parents; then, as they near the age for marriage, they would have become betrothed, and finally married.
Do you see the dilemma that Joseph is in? Some of you may be thinking, but what about Mary? She probably was in a worse situation. That is true. She was. Not only because she was pregnant without Joseph, but, in truth, there were double standards for women. Should Joseph divorce Mary, her chances for ever being married were over. The best she could hope for is to live with her parents and hope that her child would be a son who could support her when he became a man. He, himself, would have a difficult time finding a wife. What parents want to bargain with a shameful woman for their daughter?
Even so, consider Joseph’s dilemma. He learns that Mary is pregnant. We have to be careful of speculation. We do not know how he learns. Perhaps Mary breaks the news. Perhaps, which I think more likely, her parents speak for her. Mary, if following custom, would be young, maybe thirteen or fourteen. Joseph should be in his later teens, possibly older. Perhaps he has been told of Mary’s bizarre explanation of the conception resulting from the Holy Spirit. We don’t know, though we certainly can anticipate how credible he thought her story was.
Here is his choice. To remain betrothed and keep quiet about the father, though that seems noble, would not remove the shame from Mary, but draw him also into it. He will also be publicly branded as an adulterer. Even if it is made public that she made pregnant by someone else, he would still be frowned upon for marrying an adulteress. No one is going to commend him for still loving Mary and sticking by her.
There is really only one choice for him, which is to divorce her. How? He could publicly denounce her before a judge, thus absolving himself of guilt and winning the approval of the community. The other means was to give her a private certificate of dismissal before two witnesses, and thus minimize her humiliation.
His decision fit his character. As Matthew notes, he was a just man and unwilling to put her to shame. It was just to divorce, but he was taking the most compassionate path. His example is good one for us to emulate. Joseph demonstrates how a righteous person should deal with the sins of others. Sin needs to be justly dealt with, but compassion ought to be the manner in which we act when possible. Note also that Joseph did not actively impulsively. Whatever emotions he may have felt when receiving the news, it is evident that he took the time to think through what to do. At least he gave himself time to sleep on the matter.
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.”
So Joseph has a dream. There must be something about having the name Joseph and having dreams. Remember Joseph in the Old Testament? His dreams made his brothers angry enough to want to kill him.
In our Joseph’s dream an angel appears with a message. Let’s consider what he has to say. He addresses Joseph as Joseph, son of David. Typically, if a surname is added, it usually is the name of the person’s father. Why “son of David”? We are not told, but Matthew does present Jesus as the Messiah King. That perspective comes from the promise made to David that his throne would always reign and from later prophesies that the Messiah would be a descendant of David. “Joseph, the time for the prophesy to be fulfilled has come.”
The angel then reassures Joseph, do not fear to take Mary as your wife. Such reassurance indicates that Joseph really did want to wed Mary. That is why he has yet to act with a divorce. That he is not to fear probably does not refer to fearing what others may say, but to what God demands. “Do not fear, Joseph, that you would be breaking God’s law by taking Mary as your wife.”
The reason you do not have to fear is that what has happened is from God: for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. God’s plan is unfolding. That plan is the coming of the Messiah. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
Joseph did not hear the word “Jesus.” The term he would have heard was “Jeshua” or “Jehoshua,” which means “God is salvation.” That is why the angel adds for he will save his people from their sins. Call him the name that summarizes his mission to bring salvation from God.
It is vitally important to note what the salvation is to be from: their sins. Already, the angel and Matthew establish the nature of the Messiah’s work. It is not salvation from political oppression; it is not salvation from physical bondage; it is salvation from personal sin.
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).
Matthew adds this commentary on Isaiah 7:14 to note that, though Jesus did not fulfill the expectations of many of his people, he nevertheless fulfilled the prophecies about him. His salvation was not a change in God’s plans nor a failure. He was not a false messiah.
He takes time to explain the meaning of Immanuel – God with us. To Joseph and the Jews, Immanuel signifies the power of God to save. God is with us to save 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.
Like Mary, Joseph obeyed without question. There is no description of his feelings, no story to tell, just a note that he did as he was told. And this is how Jesus’ birth came to be.
It seems clear that Matthew has two primary purposes for telling Jesus’ birth. They are to explain the reason for his coming and to establish that his birth does fulfill the prophecy for the Messiah. His record of the birth is not given to merely tell the story of how Jesus was born. If so, he does a poor job. Talk about lack of details. He is like the typical male passing on to his wife news of a baby being born.
“Joseph and Mary had a baby.”
“Boy or girl?” “I don’t know.”
“What’s the name?” “I didn’t ask.”
“Did she have a tough labor?” “I think it was O.K. Joseph sounded excited.”
At least Matthew knew the name and the gender.
What then should we take from Matthew’s purposes? Consider first his concern to establish that Jesus’ birth fulfills prophecy. We know the adage that Jews seek signs. For a person to give credibility that he is from God, especially that he is a prophet, he must give a sign. It may be to perform a miracle; it may be to prophesy an event that comes true. In the case of the Messiah, it was not merely expected that he would perform signs but that he would fulfill the signs already given in the Scriptures. Matthew demonstrates that from the moment of conception Jesus had begun to fulfill the messianic signs.
This concern of Matthew’s is found throughout his gospel. It is also evident in the other gospels, and, indeed, can be seen in most of the books of the New Testament. We are to think of the gospels and the New Testament, not as new stories altogether, but as sequels to the ongoing story of the Old Testament. The verse that most clearly sets forth this view is Luke 24:27, which describes Jesus’ conversation with two disciples on the road to Emmaus: And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
The disciples never forgot that lesson, and they learned how to read their Scriptures through the lens of Jesus and his work. By the illumination of the Holy Spirit, they discovered verses such as Isaiah 7:14, which prophesied specific events such as the virgin birth. They further came to understand how the whole flow of Old Testament history moved towards the redemption that Christ would bring. They did such a good job of this that future skeptics would contend that they simply made up most of what they wrote. Thus, they would read their Scriptures and then make up stories and sayings that seemed to show Jesus fulfilling the sacred writings.
Our concern for now is not whether we think the writers were correct or honest, but to understand their mindset. It was important to them to read Jesus and his work on the cross in the Old Testament Scriptures. The narratives were not mere history or morality tales; the laws and wisdom literature were not simply commentary on how to live; and the prophets were not only foretelling the immediate events of the Jewish nation. All these pages were telling about, whispering of, building up to Jesus the Messiah.
Thus, if we are to draw from our readings in the Old Testament real value, we need to develop in ourselves the discernment to find Jesus as well. Pray for the Holy Spirit’s illumination in this regard. Ask yourself questions such as: Is this figure like Jesus? Does this event illustrate redemption?
Now consider Matthew’s account for the reason of Jesus’ birth. It is found in Jesus’ name – to save us from our sins. Jesus made this mission clear. As he once said, For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
NonChristians sort of get the idea of Jesus’ intent. They know that Christmas is supposed to be a time of love and peace, and most Christmas specials in one way or the other have the theme of someone not-so-nice becoming kind at least for the season. They miss the exact Christmas message in two ways. They view Christ’s coming as nothing more than a demonstration of God’s love for everyone. They miss the point that Christ’s work was to ransom himself for our sins, that if his ransom did not take place, his birth would be a sign of hopelessness, not of hope.
They also miss the perspective of Christmas. The movie version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a good example. It illustrates the typical humanistic view that at heart everyone is good. We are born good, but circumstances, perhaps coupled with genetics, harden us. If we could only be like Cindy-Lou and see even the smallest amount of good in others, then we could draw that good out by our own love.
There is some truth to that idea. Love is a powerful force for drawing forth good, and we can all attest to the love of others that have drawn out whatever good we might express. But the gospel’s perspective is that the source of such goodness is not to be found at the core of our hearts, but in the common grace of God to keep us from being as bad as we could be. According to the gospel, what is needed is not drawing forth good from our hearts, but transforming our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, i.e. creating goodness in us that we don’t possess of ourselves.
According to the gospel, we can’t just say that we are better people now and let’s forget the past. Feeling sorry isn’t enough because justice is as important as mercy. As much as we would like to say that people ought to forget the past of someone who has changed his ways, most of us would have trouble if the state would free a serial murderer because he has since turned into a nice guy. How bad a person has been does matter.
From God’s perspective we are so guilty. That is hard for us to imagine because from our perspective, we are pretty good people. So be it. The guilty rarely see themselves as being really bad, or as bad as everyone else makes them out to be. We, as the guilty, cannot see ourselves as God, the pure, sees us. But if we do try to take his perspective then all the more marvelous Christmas is. Would you send your infant to dwell in a state prison for murderers? Would you send your child for the express purpose of dying at the hands of the murderers? Would you send your child to die so that these murderers would change and become your dear children?
That is what Christmas is about, according to the gospel of Matthew. The name of the baby identified his destiny. Yes, Jesus was a sign of God’s love; he did signify peace. The peace he brought was to end the enmity between us and God; the love he demonstrated was by becoming, as John put it, an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:10). This Jesus was our Immanuel, God with us. In him God dwelt among us, spoke to us, ministered to us, and eventually died for us. Because he did, God is with us now and shall be forever. That is what Christmas is about.
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