The Virgin Birth
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. (1:18)
Though it does not by itself prove divine authorship, the very fact that the account of Jesus’ divine conception is given in but one verse strongly suggests that the story was not man-made. It is simply not characteristic of human nature to try to describe something so absolutely momentous and marvelous in such a brief space. Our inclination would be to expand, elaborate, and try to give every detail possible. Matthew continues to give additional information related to the virgin birth, but the fact of it is given in one sentence-the first sentence of verse 18 being merely introduction. Seventeen verses are given to listing Jesus’ human genealogy, but only part of one verse to His divine genealogy In His divinity He “descended” from God by a miraculous and never-repeated act of the Holy Spirit; yet the Holy Spirit does nothing more than authoritatively state the fact. A human fabrication would call for much more convincing material.
Birth is from the same Greek root as “genealogy” in verse 1, indicating that Matthew is here giving a parallel account of Jesus’ ancestry-this time from His Father’s side.
We have little information about Mary. It is likely that she was a native of Nazareth and that she came from a relatively poor family. From Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, and John 19:25 we learn she had a sister named Salome, the mother of James and John (who therefore were Jesus’ cousins). From Luke 3 we receive her Davidic lineage. If, as many believe, the Eli (or Heli) of Luke 3:23 was Joseph’s father-in-law (Matthew gives Joseph’s father as Jacob, 1:16), then Eli was Mary’s father. We know that Elizabeth, the wife of Zacharias, was Mary’s “relative” (Luke 1:36), probably her cousin. Those are the only relatives, besides her husband and children, of whom the New Testament speaks.
Mary was a godly woman who was sensitive and submissive to the Lord’s will. After the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she would be the mother of “the Son of God,” Mary said, ‘Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:26–38). Mary was also believing. She wondered how she could conceive: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). But she never questioned the angel was sent from God or that what he said was true. Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” testified of Mary, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord” (v. 45). Mary’s humble reverence, thankfulness, and love for God is seen in her magnificent Magnificat, as Luke 1:46–55 is often called. It begins, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. … For the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name” (vv. 47, 49).
We know even less of Joseph than of Mary. His father’s name was Jacob (Matt. 1:16) and he was a craftsman, a construction worker (tektōn), probably a carpenter (Matt. 13:55). Most importantly, he was a “righteous man” (1:19), an Old Testament saint.
It is possible that both Joseph and Mary were quite young when they were betrothed. Girls were often betrothed as young as twelve or thirteen, and boys when they were several years older than that.
By Jewish custom, a betrothal signified more than an engagement in the modern sense. A Hebrew marriage involved two stages, the kiddushin (betrothal) and the huppah (marriage ceremony). The marriage was almost always arranged by the families of the bride and groom, often without consulting them. A contract was made and was sealed by payment of the mohar, the dowry or bride price, which was paid by the groom or his family to the bride’s father. The mohar served to compensate the father for wedding expenses and to provide a type of insurance for the bride in the event the groom became dissatisfied and divorced her. The contract was considered binding as soon as it was made, and the man and woman were considered legally married, even though the marriage ceremony (huppah) and consummation often did not occur until as much as a year later. The betrothal period served as a time of probation and testing of fidelity. During that period the bride and groom usually had little, if any, social contact with each other.
Joseph and Mary had experienced no sexual contact with each other, as the phrase before they came together indicates. Sexual purity is highly regarded in Scripture, in both testaments. God places great value on sexual abstinence outside of marriage and sexual fidelity within marriage. Mary’s virginity was an important evidence of her godliness. Her reason for questioning Gabriel’s announcement of her conception was the fact that she knew she was a virgin (Luke 1:34). This testimony protects from accusation that Jesus was born of some other man.
But Mary’s virginity protected a great deal more than her own moral character, reputation, and the legitimacy of Jesus’ birth. It protected the nature of the divine Son of God. The child is never called the son of Joseph;Joseph is never called Jesus’ father, and Joseph is not mentioned in Mary’s song of praise (Luke 1:46–55). Had Jesus been conceived by the act of a man, whether Joseph or anyone else, He could not have been divine and could not have been the Savior. His own claims about Himself would have been lies, and His resurrection and ascension would have been hoaxes. And mankind would forever remain lost and damned.
Obviously Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit is a great mystery. Even had He wanted to do so, how could God have explained to us, in terms we could comprehend, how such a blending of the divine and human could have been accomplished? We could no more fathom such a thing than we can fathom God’s creating the universe from nothing, His being one God in three Persons, or His giving an entirely new spiritual nature to those who trust in His Son. Understanding of such things will have to await heaven, when we see our Lord “face to face” and “know fully just as [we] have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). We accept it by faith.
The virgin birth should not have surprised those Jews who knew and believed the Old Testament. Because of a misinterpretation of the phrase “A woman shall encompass a man” in Jeremiah 31:22, many rabbis believed the Messiah would have an unusual birth. They said, “Messiah is to have no earthly father,” and “the birth of Messiah shall be like the dew of the Lord, as drops upon the grass without the action of man.” But even that poor interpretation of an obscure text (an interpretation also held by some of the church Fathers) assumed a unique birth for the Messiah.
Not only had Isaiah indicated such a birth (7:14), but even in Genesis we get a glimpse of it. God spoke to the serpent of the enmity that would henceforth exist between “your seed and her [Eve’s] seed” (Gen. 3:15). In a technical sense the seed belongs to the man, and Mary’s impregnation by the Holy Spirit is the only instance in human history that a woman had a seed within her that did not come from a man. The promise to Abraham concerned “his seed,” a common way of referring to offspring. This unique reference to “her seed” looks beyond Adam and Eve to Mary and to Jesus Christ. The two seeds of Genesis 3:15 can be seen in a simple sense as collective; that is, they may refer to all those who are part of Satan’s progeny and to all those who a part of Eve’s. That view sees the war between the two as raging for all time, with the people of righteousness eventually gaining victory over the people of evil. But “seed” also can be singular, in that it refers to one great, final, glorious product of a woman, who will be the Lord Himself-born without male seed. In that sense the prediction is messianic. It may be that the prophecy looks to both the collective and the individual meanings.
Paul is very clear when he tells us that “When the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4). There is no human father in that verse. Jesus had to have one human parent or He could not have been human, and thereby a partaker of our flesh. But He also had to have divine parentage or He could not have made a sinless and perfect sacrifice on our behalf.
MacArthur New Testament Commentary