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. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife, and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. (1:18–25)
Biblical history records some amazing and spectacular births. The birth of Isaac to a previously barren woman nearly one hundred years old, who was laughing at the thought of having a child, was a miraculous event. The womb of Manoah’s barren wife was opened and she gave birth to Samson, who was to turn a lion inside out, kill a thousand men, and pull down a pagan temple. The birth of Samuel, the prophet and anointer of kings, to the barren Hannah, whose womb the Lord had shut, revealed divine providential power. Elizabeth was barren, but through the power of God she gave birth to John the Baptist, of whom Jesus said there had yet been no one greater “among those born of women” (Matt. 11:11). But the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus surpasses all of those.
Fantasy and mythology have counterfeited the virgin birth of Jesus Christ with a proliferation of false accounts intended to minimize His utterly unique birth.
For example, the Romans believed that Zeus impregnated Semele without contact and that she conceived Dionysus, lord of the earth. The Babylonians believed that Tammuz (see Ezek. 8:14) was conceived in the priestess Semiramis by a sunbeam. In an ancient Sumerian/Accadian story inscribed on a wall, Tukulti II (890–884 b.c.) told how the gods created him in the womb of his mother. It was even claimed that the goddess of procreation superintended the conception of King Sennacherib (705–681 b.c). At the conception of Buddha, his mother supposedly saw a great white elephant enter her belly. Hinduism has claimed that the divine Vishnu, after reincarnations as a fish, tortoise, boar, and lion, descended into the womb of Devaki and was born as her son Krishna. There is even a legend that Alexander the Great was virgin born by the power of Zeus through a snake that impregnated his mother, Olympias. Satan has set up many more such myths to counterfeit the birth of Christ in order to make it seem either common or legendary.
Modern science even speaks of parthenogenesis, which comes from a Greek term meaning “virgin born.” In the world of honey bees, unfertilized eggs develop into drones, or males. Artificial parthenogenesis has been successful with unfertilized eggs of silkworms. The eggs of sea urchins and marine worms have begun to develop when placed in various salt solutions. In 1939 and 1940, rabbits were produced (all female) through chemical and temperature influences on ova. Nothing like that has ever come close to accounting for human beings; all such parthenogenesis is impossible within the human race. Science, like mythology, has no explanation for the virgin birth of Christ. He was neither merely the son of a previously barren woman nor a freak of nature. By the clear testimony of Scripture, He was conceived by God and born of a virgin.
Nevertheless, religious polls taken over the past several generations reveal the impact of liberal theology in a marked and continuing decline in the percentage of professed Christians who believe in the virgin birth, and therefore in the deity, of Jesus Christ. One wonders why they want to be identified with a person who, if their judgment of Him were correct, had to have been either deceived or deceptive—since all four gospels explicitly teach that Jesus considered Himself to be more than a man. It is clear from the rest of the New Testament as well as from historical records that Jesus, His disciples, and all of the early church held Him to be none other than the divine Son of God. Even His enemies knew He claimed such identity (John 5:18–47).
A popular religious personality said in an interview a few years ago that he could not in print or in public deny the virgin birth of Christ, but that neither could he preach it or teach it. “When I have something I can’t comprehend,” he explained, “I just don’t deal with it.” But to ignore the virgin birth is to ignore Christ’s deity. And to ignore His deity is tantamount to denying it. Real incarnation demands a real virgin birth.
But such unbelief should not surprise us. Unbelief has been man’s greatest problem since the Fall and has always been man’s majority view. But “What then?” Paul asks. “If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar” (Rom. 3:3–4). Every faithful prophet, preacher, or teacher at some time has asked with Isaiah and Paul, “Lord, who has believed our report?” (Rom. 10:16; cf. Isa. 53:1). But popular opinion, even within the church, has not always been a reliable source of truth. When men pick and choose which parts of God’s Word to believe and follow, they set themselves above His Word and therefore above Him (cf. Ps. 138:2).
Matthew’s purpose in writing his gospel account was partly apologetic—not in the sense of making an apology for the gospel but in the more traditional sense of explaining and defending it against its many attacks and misrepresentations. Jesus’ humanity was often maligned and His deity often denied. Possibly during His earthly ministry, and certainly after His death and resurrection, it is likely Jesus was slandered by the accusation that He was the illegitimate son of Mary by some unknown man, perhaps a Roman soldier garrisoned in Galilee. It was Jesus’ claim of deity, however, that most incensed the Jewish leaders and brought them to demand His death. “For this cause therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God” (John 5:18).
It is surely no accident, therefore, that the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, at the outset of the New Testament, is devoted to establishing both the regal humanity and the deity of Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus’ being both human and divine, there is no gospel. The incarnation of Jesus Christ is the central fact of Christianity. The whole superstructure of Christian theology is built on it. The essence and the power of the gospel is that God became man and that, by being both wholly God and wholly man, He was able to reconcile men to God. Jesus’ virgin birth, His substitutionary atoning death, resurrection, ascension, and return are all integral aspects of His deity. They stand or fall together. If any of those teachings—all clearly taught in the New Testament—is rejected, the entire gospel is rejected. None makes sense, or could have any significance or power, apart from the others. If those things were not true, even Jesus’ moral teachings would be suspect, because if He misrepresented who He was by preposterously claiming equality with God, how could anything else He said be trusted? Or if the gospel writers misrepresented who He was, why should we trust their word about anything else He said or did?
Jesus once asked the Pharisees a question about Himself that men have been asking in every generation since then: “What do you think about the Christ, whose son is He?” (Matt. 22:42). That is the question Matthew answers in the first chapter of this gospel. Jesus is the human Son of man and the divine Son of God.
As we have seen, the first seventeen verses give Jesus’ human lineage—his royal descent from Abraham through David and through Joseph, His legal human father. The Jewish leaders of New Testament times acknowledged that the Messiah would be of the royal line of David; but, for the most part, they agreed on little more than that concerning Him.
History informs us that even the conservative Pharisees did not generally believe that the Messiah would be divine. Had Jesus not claimed to be more than the son of David, He may have begun to convince some of the Jewish leaders of His messiahship. Once He claimed to be God, however, they rejected Him immediately. Many people still today are willing to recognize Him as a great teacher, a model of high moral character, and even a prophet from God. Were He no more than those things, however, He could not have conquered sin or death or Satan. In short, He could not have saved the world. He would also have been guilty of grossly misrepresenting Himself.
It is interesting that certain condescending interpreters of the New Testament acknowledge that Matthew and other writers sincerely believed and taught that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that He had no human father. But, they claim, those men were uneducated and captive to the usual superstitions and myths of their times. They simply picked up on the many virgin birth legends that were common in the ancient world and adapted them to the gospel story.
It is true that pagan religions of that day, such as those of Semiramis and Tammuz, had myths of various kinds involving miraculous conceptions. But the immoral and repulsive character of those stories cannot be compared to the gospel accounts. Such stories are Satan’s vile counterfeits of God’s pure truth. Because the virgin birth of Jesus Christ is crucial to the gospel, it is a truth that false, satanic systems of religion will deny, counterfeit, or misrepresent.
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ divine conception is straightforward and simple. It is given as history, but as history that could only be known by God’s revelation and accomplished by divine miracle. It is essential to the incarnation.
After establishing Jesus’ human lineage from David, Matthew proceeds to show His divine “lineage.” That is the purpose of verses 18–25, which reveal five distinct truths about the virgin birth of Christ. We see the virgin birth conceived, confronted, clarified, connected, and consummated.
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.
The Virgin Birth Confronted
And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” (1:19–20)
As already mentioned, although Joseph and Mary were only betrothed at this time (v. 18), he was considered her husband and she was considered his wife. For the very reason that he was a righteous man, Joseph had a double problem, at least in his own mind. First, because of his righteous moral standards, he knew that he should not go through with the marriage because of Mary’s pregnancy. He knew that he was not the father and assumed, quite naturally, that Mary had had relations with another man. But second, because of his righteous love and kindness, he could not bear the thought of shaming her publicly (a common practice of his day in regard to such an offense), much less of demanding her death, as provided by the law (Deut. 22:23–24). There is no evidence that Joseph felt anger, resentment, or bitterness. He had been shamed (if what he assumed had been true), but his concern was not for his own shame but for Mary’s. He was not wanting to disgrace her by public exposure of her supposed sin. Because he loved her so deeply he determined simply to put her away secretly.
Apoluō means literally to put … away, as translated here, but was the common term used for divorce. Joseph’s plan was to divorce her secretly, though before long everyone would have guessed it when the marriage never materialized. But for a while, at least, she would be protected, and she would live.
While he considered this, however, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and allayed his fears. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid [stop being afraid] to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” This verse emphasizes the supernatural character of the whole event. To reinforce the encouraging words, as well as to verify Jesus’ royal lineage, the angel addressed Joseph as son of David. Even though He was not the real son of Joseph, Jesus was his legal son. His Father, in actuality, was God, who conceived Him by the Holy Spirit. But His royal right in the Davidic line came by Joseph.
The phrase that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit is profound. In those words is the ultimate testimony to the virgin birth. It is the testimony of the holy angel from the Lord God Himself.
One critic has waved his fist at God and called Him an unholy liar with these words: “There was nothing peculiar about the birth of Jesus. He was not God incarnate and no virgin mother bore him. The church in its ancient zeal fathered a myth and became bound to it as a dogma.” But the testimony of Scripture stands.
The Virgin Birth Clarified
“And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins” (1:21)
As if to reinforce the truth of Jesus’ divine conception, the angel tells Joseph that she will bear a Son. Joseph would act as Jesus’ earthly father, but he would only be a foster father. Luke’s genealogy of Jesus through Mary’s line accurately says He was “supposedly the son of Joseph” (3:23, emphasis added).
Joseph was told to name the Son … Jesus, just as Zacharias was told to name his son John (Luke 1:13). We are not told the purpose or significance of John’s name, but that of Jesus was made clear even before His birth. Jesus is a form of the Hebrew Joshua, Jeshua, or Jehoshua, the basic meaning of which is “Jehovah (Yahweh) will save.” All other men who had those names testified by their names to the Lord’s salvation. But this One who would be born to Mary not only would testify of God’s salvation, but would Himself be that salvation. By His own work He would save His people from their sins.
The Virgin Birth Connected
Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” (1:22–23)
At this point Matthew explains that Jesus’ virgin birth was predicted by God in the Old Testament. The Lord clearly identifies the birth of Christ as a fulfillment of prophecy. All this refers to the facts about the divine birth of Jesus Christ. And the great miracle of His birth was the fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet. That phrase gives a simple, straightforward definition of biblical inspiration as the Word of the Lord coming through human instruments. God does the saying; the human instrument is only a means to bring the divine Word to men. Based on these words of the Lord given through Matthew, the Old Testament text of Isaiah must be interpreted as predicting the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.
Matthew repeatedly uses the phrase might be fulfilled (2:15, 17, 23; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54; etc.) to indicate ways in which Jesus, and events related to His earthly ministry, were fulfillments of Old Testament prophecy. The basic truths and happenings of the New Testament were culminations, completions, or fulfillments of revelation God had already made—though often the revelation had been in veiled and partial form.
The scene in Isaiah 7 is the reign of King Ahaz in Judah. Though son of the great Uzziah, he was a wicked king. He filled Jerusalem with idols, reinstated the worship of Molech, and burned his own son as a sacrifice to that god. Rezin, king of Syria (Aram), and Pekah, king of Israel (also called Samaria at that time), decided to remove Ahaz and replace him with a king who would do their bidding. In the face of such a threat to the people of Israel and to the royal line of David, Ahaz, instead of turning to God for help, sought the help of Tiglath-pileser, the evil king of the Assyrians. He even plundered and sent to Tiglath-pileser the gold and silver from the Temple.
Isaiah came to Ahaz and reported that God would deliver the people from the two enemy kings. When Ahaz refused to listen, Isaiah responded with the remarkable messianic prophecy of 7:14.
How did a prediction of the virgin birth of Messiah fit that ancient scene? Isaiah was telling the wicked king that no one would destroy the people of God or the royal line of David. When the prophet said, “The Lord shall give you a sign,” he used a plural you, indicating that Isaiah was also speaking to the entire nation, telling them that God would not allow Rezin and Pekah, or anyone else, to destroy them and the line of David (cf. Gen. 49:10; 2 Sam. 7:13). Even though the people came into the hands of Tiglath-pileser, who destroyed the northern kingdom and overran Judah on four occasions, God preserved them just as He promised.
Isaiah also refers to another child who would be born; and before that child (Maher-shalal-hash-baz) would be old enough to “eat curds and honey” or “know enough to refuse evil and choose good,” the lands of Rezin and Pekah would be forsaken (7:15–16). Sure enough, before the child born to Isaiah’s wife was three years old those two kings were dead. Just as that ancient prophecy of a child came to pass, so did the prophecy of the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Both were signs that God would not ultimately forsake His people. The greatest sign was that Immanuel, which translated means, “God with us,” would come.
In Isaiah 7:14, the verse here quoted by Matthew, the prophet used the Hebrew word ’almâ. Old Testament usage of ’almâ favors the translation “virgin.” The word first appears in Genesis 24:43, in connection with Rebekah, the future bride of Isaac. The King James Version reads, “Behold I stand by the well of water; and it shall come to pass, that when the virgin cometh forth to draw water.” In verse 16 of the same chapter Rebekah is described as a “damsel” (na’ărâ) and a “virgin” (betûlâ). It should be concluded that ’almâ is never used to refer to a married woman. The word occurs five other times in Scripture (Ex. 2:8; Ps. 68:25; Prov. 30:19; Song of Sol. 1:3; 6:8), and in each case contains the idea of a virgin. Until recent times, it was always translated as such by both Jewish and Christian scholars.
The most famous medieval Jewish interpreter, Rashi (1040–1105), who was an opponent of Christianity, made the following comment: “ ‘Behold the ’almâ shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel’ means that our Creator shall be with us. And this is the sign: The one who will conceive is a girl (na’ărâ) who never in her life has had intercourse with any man. Upon this one shall the Holy Spirit have power.” It should be noted that in modern Hebrew the word virgin is either ’almâ or betûlâ. Why did not Isaiah use betûlâ? Because it is sometimes used in the Old Testament of a married woman who is not a virgin (Deut. 22:19; Joel 1:8).
’Almâ can mean “virgin,” and that is how the Jewish translators of the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) translated the word in Isaiah 7:14 (by the Greek parthenos, “virgin”)—several hundred years before the birth of Christ. The “sign” of which Isaiah spoke was given specifically to King Ahaz, who feared that the royal line of Judah might be destroyed by Syria and Israel. The prophet assured the king that God would protect that line. The birth of a son and the death of the kings would be the signs guaranteeing His protection and preservation. And in the future there would be a greater birth, the virgin birth of God incarnate, to assure the covenant with God’s people.
Matthew did not give the term ’almâ a Christian “twist,” but used it with the same meaning with which all Jews of that time used it. In any case, his teaching of the virgin birth does not hinge on that word. It is made incontestably clear by the preceding statements that Jesus’ conception was “by the Holy Spirit” (vv. 18, 20).
The name of the Son born to a virgin would be Immanuel, which translated means, “God with us.” That name was used more as a title or description than as a proper name. In His incarnation Jesus was, in the most literal sense, God with us.
The fact that a virgin shall be with child is marvelous—a pregnant virgin! Equally marvelous is that she shall call His name Immanuel.
The Old Testament repeatedly promises that God is present with His people, to secure their destiny in His covenant. The Tabernacle and Temple were intended to be symbols of that divine presence. The term for tabernacle is mishkān, which comes from shākan, meaning to dwell, rest, or abide. From that root the term shekinah. has also come, referring to the presence of God’s glory. The child born was to be the Shekinah, the true Tabernacle of God (cf. John 1:14). Isaiah was the instrument through which the Word of the Lord announced that God would dwell among men in visible flesh and blood incarnation—more intimate and personal than the Tabernacle or Temple in which Israel had worshiped.
The Virgin Birth Consummated
And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife, and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. (1:24–25)
That Joseph arose from his sleep indicates that the revelatory dream had come to him while he slept (cf. v. 20). Such unique, direct communication from God was used on other occasions to reveal Scripture (see Gen. 20:3; 31:10–11; Num. 12:6; 1 Kings 3:5; Job 33:14–16). It should be noted that all six New Testament occurrences of onar (“to dream”) are in Matthew and concern the Lord Jesus Christ (see 1:20; 2:12–13, 19, 22; 27:19).
We know nothing of Joseph’s reaction, except that he immediately obeyed, doing as the angel of the Lord commanded him. We can imagine how great his feelings of amazement, relief, and gratitude must have been. Not only would he be able to take his beloved Mary as his wife with honor and righteousness, but he would be given care of God’s own Son while He was growing up.
That fact alone would indicate the depth of Joseph’s godliness. It is inconceivable that God would entrust His Son into a family where the father was not totally committed and faithful to Him.
We know nothing else of Joseph’s life except his taking the infant Jesus to the Temple for dedication (Luke 2:22–33), his taking Mary and Jesus into Egypt to protect Him from Herod’s bloody edict and the return (Matt. 2:13–23), and his taking his family to the Passover in Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve (Luke 2:42–52). We have no idea when Joseph died, but it could have been well before Jesus began His public ministry. Obviously it was before Jesus’ crucifixion, because from the cross Jesus gave his mother into the care of John (John 19:26).
Apparently the marriage ceremony, when Joseph took her as his wife, was held soon after the angel’s announcement. But he kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son. Matthew makes it clear that she remained a virgin until she gave birth, implying that normal marital relations began after that time. The fact that Jesus’ brothers and sisters are spoken of numerous times in the gospels (Matt. 12:46; 13:55–56; Mark 6:3; etc.) prove that Mary did not remain a virgin perpetually, as some claim.
As a final act of obedience to God’s instruction through the angel, Joseph called His name Jesus, indicating that He was to be the Savior (cf. v. 21).
The supernatural birth of Jesus is the only way to account for the life that He lived. A skeptic who denied the virgin birth once asked a Christian, “If I told you that child over there was born without a human father, would you believe me?” The believer replied, “Yes, if he lived as Jesus lived.” The greatest outward evidence of Jesus’ supernatural birth and deity is His life.
Matthew’s Witness to the Virgin Birth
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Each year on Christmas Eve our church holds a candlelight and carol service, and at the end of this service, after we have read all the Christmas lessons and sung most of the great Christmas carols, we stand in the candle-lit sanctuary and sing “Silent Night” together.
Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child …
In this way we profess belief in the virgin birth of Jesus as an important part of the Christmas story. And so do millions of others. Unfortunately, many do not believe it, and others who do, do not know why it is important.
In the early decades of this century, the virgin birth was a focal point for liberalism’s many denials of Christian truth. Those who believed the Bible recognized that the virgin birth is indeed biblical and rose to the doctrine’s defense, answering the liberal objections. They did such a good a job that eventually most liberals refused even to grapple with the arguments made on behalf of this truth. They just continued in their unbelief, as some people do, in spite of the fact that the Word of God clearly teaches the virgin birth and that the objections to it have been answered.
The Virgin Birth in Matthew
Much of this debate centered around the Old Testament text that Matthew cites as a prophecy of the virgin birth: Isaiah 7:14. “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (Matt. 1:23). It has been argued that Isaiah’s word for the young woman, bethulah, does not necessarily mean “virgin,” though it usually does. It can mean merely a young woman of marriageable age. But whatever Isaiah meant in his own context is a secondary matter here, since it is beyond doubt that Matthew at least meant to teach that Jesus was conceived by God apart from any human father. He makes this clear in Matthew 1:18, which reads, “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.”
The account then goes on to explain that Joseph was disturbed by Mary’s pregnancy, as any man in his position would be. Being a righteous (that is, an upright) man, he did not think it proper to go through with the marriage and decided to break his engagement to Mary in a private manner. But while he was pondering this, an angel appeared to him to explain that Mary had not been unfaithful to him but that the child she was carrying had been conceived by God. The angel said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (vv. 20–21).
Joseph did as the angel had commanded, and the account concludes, “But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus” (vv. 24–25).
Two Parallel Accounts
One thing we notice, as soon as we begin to compare Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, is that they are both quite Jewish in character. Luke was a Greek who wrote in a polished Greek style. A good example is the long opening sentences (one sentence in the kjv) with which he began his Gospel (vv. 1–4). But as soon as we get past the prologue we find ourselves in one of the most Semitic sections of the New Testament (Luke 1:5–2:52). J. Gresham Machen said of Luke’s prologue, “It would be difficult to imagine a more skillfully formed, and more typically Greek sentence than this.” But he added, “This typically Greek sentence is followed by what is probably the most markedly Semitic section in the whole New Testament.”
This is so unlike Luke’s other writing that we can only explain it by assuming that Luke got this material from an Aramaic or non-Greek source. He says in verse 3 that he had “carefully investigated everything [about the life of Jesus] from the beginning.” So Luke must have talked with those who had been eyewitnesses of these events. In respect to Jesus’ birth, Luke must have gotten his details from Mary, who would have been the original, best, and, at this late date, probably the only eyewitness of the nativity events left. Moreover, Luke must have received his material in some sort of written form, which may itself also go back to Mary.
When we turn from Luke to Matthew, we find that Matthew’s account no less than Luke’s is Jewish in character, evidenced, for example, in the matter of Joseph and Mary’s betrothal and the problem it presented for Joseph. In Jewish culture at that time, a betrothal carried such a weight of personal commitment that something almost like a formal divorce was needed to dissolve the engagement. This circumstance did not prevail in the Greek or Roman cultures of the time.
As we read on, we discover that five times in the opening two chapters Matthew explains what was happening by a reference to the Old Testament. He employs a standard formula for Old Testament citations, saying, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet …” (Matt. 1:22; see 2:5, 15, 17, 23). Then he quotes the text that prophesied the event he recorded. I have already referred to Matthew 1:23, where he cites Isaiah 7:14 as proof of the virgin birth. He does the same thing in chapter 2, where he cites Micah 5:2 regarding Christ’s birth in Bethlehem; Hosea 11:1, which speaks of God calling his “son” out of Egypt; Jeremiah 31:15, which deals with the people’s weeping for the slain infants of Bethlehem; and an uncertain text prophesying that Jesus would “be called a Nazarene.”
But there are differences between these chapters and the corresponding chapters in Luke. In Luke’s Gospel, the Jewish chapters are clearly out of place. They are a Semitic island in a Greek literary sea. In Matthew’s Gospel, they are not at all out of place, for the Gospel from beginning to end is Jewish, as I began to point out in the last chapter.
And there is this important difference too. When we study the specific content of Luke’s chapters dealing with Jesus’ birth, we find that the entire content and atmosphere are pre-Christian, which fits an early origin, such as a document going back to Mary. Everything that is spoken is in terms of God’s fulfillment of his promises to Israel. There is not even a suggestion that the reason Jesus came to earth was that he might die for sin. On the other hand, when we turn to Matthew’s Gospel, though it is clearly Jewish, it is also obviously post-Christian. That is, it was written after the death and resurrection of Jesus when the gospel of his atoning death was being proclaimed throughout the world. For example, it is said that the child’s name would be “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21). This reflects a later, gospel understanding. Similarly, in chapter 2, the significance of the Magi is that they were Gentiles and that Jesus was their king too.
True or False Accounts?
What is the relationship between these two accounts? When I consider parallel accounts (such as these or others in the Bible), I think of the way Reuben A. Torrey handled parallel accounts when he spoke of the resurrection. He pointed out that parallel accounts must have been produced by one of three methods: (1) They were invented in collusion, the people getting together to write their accounts, or (2) they were invented separately, that is, independently of each other, or (3) they were not invented at all but are factual records of observed events.
Into which of these categories do Luke’s and Matthew’s accounts of the virgin birth fit?
- The accounts were invented in collusion. On the surface this is a possibility. The writers could have gotten together in Jerusalem when Luke was there with Paul on Paul’s last journey to the city. Luke could have said, “You know, Matthew, I’m writing a Gospel about Jesus, and I want to tell something about his birth. I wonder if you could help me with a few of the details.” Matthew might have answered, “That’s very interesting, Luke, because I’m doing the same thing. But I have to tell you that there’s not much firsthand information about it anymore. We are going to have to make most of it up.” So they would have put their heads together and begun to work out the details of their story.
Or there is another way it could have happened. We could suppose that Matthew had already written his Gospel and had passed from the scene. Perhaps he had died. But then Luke came to Jerusalem and, while researching the life of Jesus, came upon Matthew’s papers and made use of them for his narrative. Or again, both authors might have made use of an entirely separate account of the birth of Jesus that had somehow been floating around the city.
Do these possibilities explain what we actually have in these two Gospels? If Matthew and Luke made up these accounts, would there be the kind of noticeable, apparent discrepancies we find? Luke talks about an angel appearing to Mary to announce the birth of Jesus. Matthew has an angelic announcement too, but Matthew’s angel does not appear to Mary; he appears to Joseph. This is not a discrepancy. It might be expected that God explained what was happening to both Mary and Joseph. But this is not the kind of thing that would have been allowed to stand if these men had been creating their stories together. Luke would have said, “Matthew, that’s a good story you’ve got about an angel appearing to Joseph, but in my account I have him appearing to Mary. We can’t have both. We’ve got to decide who it’s going to be.” They would have picked one version only. Or if they had kept both, they would have included both versions in both narratives.
Here is another apparent contradiction. Luke tells about shepherds coming to worship the infant Christ. Matthew tells about wise men. I can imagine Matthew saying to Luke, “That is a very poignant and touching story you have there, but you have missed the point I am making. I want to present Jesus as Israel’s king, and for that reason I need to show that even Gentile kings bowed before him.” Luke might answer, “That’s a good point, but we haven’t seen many kings converted yet. Most Christians are simple people. Wouldn’t it be better if we talked about humble shepherds and forgot about the kings?”
There are other examples. Luke says that Joseph and Mary came from Nazareth and went to Bethlehem because of the decree of Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. But Matthew begins with Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:1). Matthew does not mention Nazareth until the end of chapter 2. Again, Luke indicates that after Jesus’ birth the family returned to Nazareth from Bethlehem. But Matthew has an account of Herod’s murder of the innocents and of the family’s flight to Egypt, so that it was from Egypt rather than from Bethlehem that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus actually returned to Nazareth.
It is clear from these differences that the accounts of Matthew and Luke were not made up in collusion, for if they were, these seeming discrepancies would have been eliminated.
- The accounts were made up separately. What about the second possibility, that Matthew and Luke invented their stories separately? Suppose Matthew was sitting in his little office in Jerusalem, and Luke was sitting in his little office somewhere else. They did not even know the other writer was working on a Gospel. They just decided on their own to make up stories about Jesus’ birth. If that were the case, we could understand the existence of differences, but we could not explain the strong, underlying agreements, for there is no mistaking the fact that we are dealing with the same basic story in each Gospel. The central characters are the same, and the central event, the miraculous conception of Jesus by means of God’s Holy Spirit, is identical.
When we put the accounts together, we have a long but consistent history. First, Zechariah was informed concerning the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:5–25). The annunciation to Zechariah was followed by the annunciation to Mary, an account parallel to the first (Luke 1:26–38). Understandably, Mary then went to visit Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, Mary’s relative (Luke 1:36), stayed with her for three months, and then returned to Nazareth (Luke 1:39–56). Luke’s first chapter ends with the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:57–80).
Matthew picks up the story at this point. He says nothing of what has gone before, but what Luke has told is necessary to understand what happens. Matthew tells of the discovery of Mary’s condition, of Joseph’s puzzled indecision, and then the explanation of what was happening to Joseph by the angel (Matt. 1:18–25).
Luke continues by telling of the journey to Bethlehem, which explains how the couple got there (Luke 2:1–5). Matthew and Luke both record the birth, though Luke, who is writing from Mary’s perspective, reports it at greater length (Matt. 1:25; Luke 2:6–7). Then Luke continues, telling of the visit of the shepherds to the manger (Luke 2:8–20), the circumcision of Jesus eight days after his birth (Luke 2:21), and the presentation of the child at the temple on the fortieth day, including several incidents linked to that presentation (Luke 2:22–40).
At last, Matthew records the visit of the Magi (Matt. 2:1–12), the flight to Egypt (Matt. 2:13–18), and finally the return to Nazareth, which is also told by Luke, though he does not relate the other instances (Matt. 2:19–23; Luke 2:39). It is impossible that there could have been this much harmony between the two accounts if they had been made up by Matthew and Luke working separately.
- The accounts were not made up at all; they are factual. Where does that leave us? If we eliminate the possibility that the stories of the birth of Jesus were made up in collusion and the possibility that they were made up separately, the only other possibility is that they were not made up at all but rather are two, separate, accurate records of the events connected with Jesus’ birth as their authors knew them. All we must add is that, although these events are fully historical, they are also supernatural, for this is the supreme moment in human history when the supernatural broke into the normal flow of historical events by the grace of our good God.
Call Him “Jesus”
Yet, how simply the story is told! “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The explanation of the meaning of Jesus’ name is from the Old Testament, though Matthew does not draw attention to the fact. It is from Psalm 130, a psalm in which Israel is encouraged to “put your hope in the Lord” (v. 7). Why? Because, says the psalmist, “He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins” (v. 8). Even in the psalmist’s day it was clear that these words pointed forward to a redeemer and an act of redemption yet to come. But in Matthew, as we begin the New Testament, we learn that the time of that redemption has come and that the one who is to perform the work is none other than God himself in the person of his one and only Son, Jesus Christ.
What a name this is! Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Jeshua or Joshua, and it means quite literally “Jehovah is salvation.” This is the message that was conveyed to Joseph primarily, for he was told that the one who had been conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit was a divine Messiah, the one who had been promised from the very beginning of Israel’s history, and even before that, and that the work of this divine person would be a work of salvation, since “he will save his people from their sins.” The prophesy from Isaiah reinforces this, for in addition to predicting that the Lord’s conception would be supernatural (“the virgin will be with child”), the text also declares that he will be God incarnate, since his name will be Immanuel, which means “God with us” (Isa. 7:14).
This is what captured the sanctified imagination of Charles Wesley when he composed the second stanza of his great Christmas hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Wesley must have had this passage in mind when he moved from the thought of Jesus’ heavenly preexistence to his incarnation, ending with the powerful name Immanuel.
Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell.
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King.”
Here is a point where, although we are still at the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, we need to look forward to the end. For at the very end, in the very last sentence, the promise of this text returns again. Jesus has been crucified and raised from the dead. He has appeared to his disciples to commission them for the work he still has for them to do. They are to go into all the world and there make disciples of all nations. He tells them how this is to be done. They are to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and they are to teach obedience to everything he has commanded. Then he concludes, “And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
Immanuel! God with us! And to the very end of this age!
At the beginning of the Gospel we find that Jesus is “God with us” by a supernatural conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary. But here at the end he is still with us, and will be with us always.
What a wonderful list of names we have for Jesus! The Bible is full of them. He is the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega, the Ancient of Days. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. He is the Anointed One, the Messiah. He is our Prophet, Priest, and King. He is our Savior, the Only Wise God. He is our Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. He is the Lord, the Almighty. He is the Door of the sheep, the Good Shepherd, the Great Shepherd, the Chief Shepherd, the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. He is the Lamb Slain from before the foundation of the world. He is the Logos, the Light, the Light of the World, the Light of Life, the Tree of Life, the Word of Life, the Bread that came down from heaven, the Spring which, if a person drink of it, he will never thirst again. He is the Way and the Truth and the Life. He is the Resurrection and the Life. He is our Rock, our Bridegroom, our Beloved, and our Redeemer. He is the Head over all things, which is his body, the church.
But above all, he is “God with us,” Immanuel, and he came from heaven to earth to save us from our sins.
The Origin of Jesus
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. (Matt. 1:18)
In our home we tell the story of each child’s birth once a year, on her birthday. One telling begins, “It was a stormy night, late in the fall, when the last leaves were clinging to the trees.” We then proceed to tales of sleepless nights, intimidating nurses, tender moments, and ardent prayers. After the birth story, we share anecdotes from the first months of life, stories that hint at the character of the life we celebrate: “At six months, you were already crawling all over the house and you have moved nonstop ever since.” Just so, Matthew features the story of Jesus’ birth, but more, for his birth is merely the beginning. Matthew describes the beginning of Jesus’ life so that it foreshadows much of the rest of his life.
The text begins, “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about,” but close reading shows that we are not yet considering the birth itself. It is more the story of the virgin conception of Jesus, as the eternal Son of God becomes a man. God’s Spirit forms the human baby in the womb of a virgin. His angel tells Joseph and Mary all they need to know to care for this child who was, months later, born into their family.
Matthew’s account describes more than a birth. In fact, the Greek word translated “birth” in 1:18 is not the ordinary word for birth at all. To translate literally, Matthew says, “The origin of Jesus Christ was like this.” Matthew wrote his account so all may know the origin and conception of this virgin-born child named Jesus.
The story is told from the perspective of Joseph and that makes sense. Through Joseph, his adopting father, Jesus receives credentials for his mission. Through Joseph, he is counted the Son of David. This fulfills the promise made long ago that Israel would have a David-like king, to rule the people with justice (2 Sam. 7:11–16). The Lord promised this to Jeremiah: “I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety” (Jer. 23:5–6).
The Israelites endured many an evil king while awaiting this Davidic deliverer. Sadly, they could have endured a thousand generations of disappointment unless something changed. But there were hints that God was orchestrating events, leading them to a climax. By the time of Mary and Joseph, the line of David had shown its sinfulness, its fecklessness. Indeed, in its calling to rule Israel, it was exhausted and all but invisible.
For this reason, Matthew reveals that Jesus is from the line of David, but not from the flesh of David. The promises to David’s line showed that Israel needed a mighty deliverer, a great and fearless king, a warrior to battle foes, and a man who loved God and his people more than life itself. Yet the history of Israel had been a sad tale of failed king following failed king. Human flesh could not deliver God’s people. They needed something different. This lesson is universal: No king or prophet can deliver us, for flesh and blood, by itself, cannot save. No politician or physician, no teacher or preacher, no father or mother, can deliver mankind.
Matthew says God has been orchestrating the needed deliverance. Since the Lord often uses names to reveal his purposes, he gives baby Jesus more than one name; no single name could describe all that he is. The baby is called both Jesus and Immanuel. Jesus means “God saves”; the name is given “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).
Immanuel means “God with us.” The name Immanuel, says Matthew, fulfills a prophecy.
The birth of Jesus “took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel—which means, ‘God with us’ ” (1:22–23, citing Isa. 7). This is a surprise. The people had been looking for a son of David, but not for Immanuel. Perhaps no one genuinely heard the prophecy; nonetheless, one was given (the fact that we are deaf does not mean God fails to speak). The birth of Jesus, God’s Immanuel, fulfills several prophecies, some clear, others veiled.
Conceived by the Holy Spirit
Mary and Joseph are betrothed, not married, when the account of Jesus’ birth begins: “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit” (1:18). Mary and Joseph did not live in the same home. They were, Matthew says, sexually chaste; they had not yet “come together.” They were betrothed and pure, yet pregnant.
In Israel, betrothal was much weightier than engagement in Western societies today. It was so binding that Matthew already calls Joseph “her husband” (1:19). The couple did not sleep together during their betrothal, yet Mary’s body was swelling. Her body declared that she was pregnant. What a crushing blow to Joseph! He had never been with Mary but, so it seemed, someone else had. His bride-to-be was pregnant but was not carrying his child. He was a righteous man and wanted a righteous wife. If Mary had been unfaithful to him before they even married, what kind of woman was she? What kind of marriage could they have? In every moral, emotional, and legal way, he was right to plan to end the betrothal. Since betrothal was so binding, its termination amounted to a divorce. However miserable the thought, Joseph had to consider divorce: “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (1:19).
This determination indicates that Joseph was just and upright and wanted no part of a corrupt marriage. As a just man, he had every right to cancel the marriage. Joseph had never been with Mary, but she was pregnant. Given these (apparent) facts, it was sensible to put her aside. But Joseph was merciful too. He could have exposed Mary, as an unwed mother, to public disgrace and to severe penalties. A quiet divorce, however, would preserve some of her dignity. She would bear the consequences of her action, but would not suffer the most public humiliation. So Joseph settled upon a quiet divorce.
The Lord let Joseph struggle to solve his problem for a season before he revealed a better plan. He often works this way. He lets us make plans, then reveals a better way. When this happens, we must change our plans, as Joseph did. We must test our plans and purposes against God’s will, as revealed in Scripture and in the counsel of the wise. Sometimes, circumstances unfold in ways that suggest what God’s will may be. Even plans that look sound must be open to revision.
God wanted Joseph to proceed with the marriage and sent an angelic messenger to tell him why. Here we must purge our popular images of angels. In the Bible, angels are not cute and do not specialize in romance. They are as likely to say something frightening as to say something comforting. Their appearance in our realm is a rare, weighty, and awesome event.
Angels are God’s mighty messengers. There is a cluster of angel appearances near the birth of Jesus because it is such a weighty event. Here God’s angel intervenes for the sake of Joseph (and for our sake) so he will know what this virgin conception means: “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’ ” (1:20). Every phrase counts.
The address “Joseph, son of David” links the virgin conception to the Davidic genealogy. The Holy Spirit is the author of this life, yet Joseph has a role to play.
“Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife” addresses his sad resolution to divorce the woman he loves. The angel assures Joseph that things are not as they seem. Because the child was conceived not by a man but by the Holy Spirit, Joseph can marry his beloved. She is as pure and godly as he had hoped. Into his new marriage, Joseph must adopt this child as his son. Jesus was conceived by the Spirit of God, but Joseph must adopt him into the line of David. From that line, the deliverer of Israel had to come. Therefore Jesus is both the Son of God and the Son of David. Because of the adoption, Jesus will grow up in a normal home, with both father and mother to love and nurture him.
“What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” The church traditionally speaks of the virgin birth, but the Gospels stress the miraculous conception, the virgin conception, of Christ. The miracle lay in the manner of Jesus’ conception. So far as we know, the process of birth itself was normal.
The Child’s Name and Mission
God tells Joseph the child is a boy and that his name must be Jesus: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (1:21). As we have seen, Jesus means “the Lord saves.” The Lord saves and delivers his people in many ways: he gives food to the hungry, he heals the sick, he comforts the brokenhearted. Many hoped the Messiah would save Israel from their Roman oppressors.
But the angel declares God’s agenda. Jesus will not save his people from physical enemies; he “will save his people from their sins.” Sin is the root of all other calamities. Yes, calamity comes from many sources: accidents, forgetfulness, disease. But the root cause of disorder is sin, and the greatest disorder is to be at odds with God. Jesus will save his people from that.
This birth of Jesus begins the unfolding of God’s salvation; it also fulfills Scripture. The precise words are instructive: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet” (1:22). That is, the prophet, Isaiah in this case, spoke as God moved him (2 Peter 1:21). These are God’s very words, spoken by a prophet, to prepare the way for God’s salvation.
The birth of Jesus shows that God is with us. In important ways, God is always with us. We can never flee from his presence. He is in the heavens and the depths, on land and at sea (Ps. 139:7–9). We can ignore God, we can deny God, we can curse God. But he never disappears. His reign extends over all creation, even, in a way, over hell itself. God is omnipresent. Nevertheless, Matthew says that with Jesus’ birth, God entered human history in a new way. He is with us, in power, for blessing.
Three times in the Gospel of Matthew we hear that Jesus is God with us: in the beginning, at its midpoint, and at the end. It is a crucial moment each time. In the beginning, we hear that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, to save his people from their sins (1:21).
In the middle, we hear that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, to purify his church. Jesus promises, “Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (18:20). We often use this verse to find assurance that God hears when we gather for prayer, and rightly so. But in its original context, Jesus had a specific prayer in mind. In the agony of church discipline, when a Christian persists in sin and will not repent, when the leaders deal with such rebellion, Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, to preserve the purity of the church.
At the end of Matthew, Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, to expand the church. Just before he ascended into heaven, Jesus directed his disciples to go and make disciples of all the nations. It is a vast task, therefore Jesus declares, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (28:19–20). Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, to empower the church to make disciples.
What a comfort to know that Jesus is God with us. I once traveled to Austria and Hungary on a mission trip. In Hungary, the main languages are Hungarian, Russian, and German. I understand no Hungarian, virtually no Russian, and a smattering of German, so it was a great comfort to hear my hosts promise that they would be “with me” at all times. Indeed, they were with me all the time—except when they were not with me. They were with me all the time, except when their car got caught in traffic so that there was no one to meet me when I arrived in the Budapest airport—where not one person spoke English. When I spoke at the planned conference, my host was with me all the time, except when I was in the care of my translator. Then I was with the translator all the time—except when he was late or had other business and handed me off to someone else. That “someone else” typically assumed that as an educated person, I could speak German, and so addressed me in that tongue. Otherwise, there was always an English speaker with me—except in the morning and at night and at some meals (!).
But in Christ, God is always with us. What a comfort when a child gets on a plane or travels to a camp or starts first grade or goes to college or moves to England. When we can no longer be with them, God is with them. What a comfort when we are lonely, sick, guilt-ridden, or afraid. Jesus is Immanuel—God with us.
Ahaz and Immanuel
The story of Jesus’ conception invites us to imagine a young woman, holy and yielded to God, astonished to hear that God incarnate has entered her womb. The eternal God will grow in her womb, will be her baby. We may also imagine a young man, holy and yielded, startled to find that his betrothed wife is pregnant, not by him. He will adopt this child, the Son of God.
It is the story of a young man and a young woman, but much more it is the account of God’s action. God entered human history, declaring that he is the God with whom we have to do. Immanuel is more than a title: it is a declaration that God has entered our realm and that we must reckon with him.
There are right and wrong ways to do this. This is so important that the Lord took pains to prepare his people to recognize the weight of it. To prepare us for Immanuel, he predicted it and sent a prototype of it. The prototype of the Immanuel principle came long ago, during the reign of an evil king of Judah named Ahaz.
Early in the reign of Ahaz, two neighboring kings, Pekah king of the northern tribes of Israel and Rezin king of Aram (or Syria), invaded his land, marching toward Jerusalem, the capital city. If they succeeded, they would install a puppet king and divide his country (the southern half of Israel) among themselves. Ahaz and the people shook with fear (Isa. 7:1–2).
Ahaz was not a believer, yet God sent Isaiah the prophet to offer him a gracious blessing. Isaiah said, “Do not be afraid.” The evil plan, the invasion, would fail (7:4, 7). Since Isaiah knew Ahaz might be skeptical, he added two thoughts. First, he warned: “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all” (7:9b). Second, he offered a promise: “Ask the Lord your God for a sign” and he will grant it so you can be sure he will grant you this deliverance (7:11).
Unfortunately, Ahaz wanted no part of Isaiah or his sign. He did not believe the Lord would deliver him. Instead, he had his own plan of escape. To defeat two small powers—the northern tribes of Israel and Aram—Ahaz planned to appeal to the greatest power of his day, the king of Assyria. Ahaz, however, was unwilling to admit his plan to Isaiah, so he used a pious ploy, couched in religious jargon, to cover his rebellion. He said, “I will not ask [for a sign]; I will not put the Lord to the test” (Isa. 7:12).
Now it is true that we should not test the Lord. We should not demand that he perform signs or wonders for us. We should not tell God, “Do this and do that for me and then I will believe in you” (cf. Gen. 28:20–22; Ex. 17:1–7). But God had already resolved to give Ahaz a sign, as a gift. He knew Ahaz did not believe in him, so he offered a sign as a token of his strong love. Ahaz was saying, in essence, “I want no dealings with God—no gifts, no signs. I will care for my own destiny.”
Isaiah replied that whether Ahaz wanted a sign or not, he would receive one: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14). Before this child knew right from wrong, the two kings attacking Ahaz would be destroyed (7:16). But after that, Isaiah said, God “will bring the king of Assyria” (7:17).
Ahaz intended to hire Assyria to fight for him, to make an alliance. He invited Assyria’s army to come and fight the invaders and then, most likely, to receive the booty from the defeated armies and a gift from Ahaz. We can imagine, therefore, that when Isaiah said Assyria would come, it pleased Ahaz, initially at least. Yet, Isaiah continued, Assyria would come and would deliver Ahaz, but in its own way. Assyria would come like a plague of flies, like bees swarming over the land, like a raging river sweeping over the land (7:18–19; 8:4, 7–8).
God had offered Ahaz a gentle deliverance, but Ahaz wanted a mighty warrior. Now, God says, Ahaz would find one. The mighty army of Assyria would come and sweep away the invaders. But the army of Assyria would be hard to control, like a flood, bursting the banks of a river. That army
will overflow all its channels,
run over all its banks
and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it,
passing through it and reaching up to the neck.
Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land,
O Immanuel! (Isa. 8:7–8)
When we hear “Immanuel” again, it seems like a poor fit for the context. At first we cannot grasp its meaning. Clearly, this use of “Immanuel” has no direct connection with the birth of a child then or with the birth of Jesus later on. Yet in context the sense is clear: God is with Ahaz, whether he likes it or not. Ahaz has rejected God’s deliverance. He said, “I want no dealings with God. I want to work with the king of Assyria.” In essence, the Lord replied, “Go ahead and work with the king of Assyria. Afterward he will work you over. Once his army comes your way, it will sweep over your land and do as they please. After that happens, you will know that I am Immanuel and you still must deal with me.” That is, if Ahaz refuses the gift of God because he does not want Immanuel, because he does not want God’s presence, then he must know that God is still Immanuel. God offered to be with Ahaz to bless, but if Ahaz repudiates that, then God is still present—to curse. He will let Ahaz taste the folly of inviting the Assyrian army into his land.
In the Old Testament, the principle of Immanuel teaches that if we reject God’s gracious deliverance and work something out for ourselves, we may succeed in the short run. Ahaz had deliverance for a day, when Assyria drove out the small invaders. But then Assyria stayed on, making Ahaz his vassal. Like floodwaters rising neck high, Assyria came within an inch of killing Ahaz.
So it goes to this day. When we work out our own deliverance, it often seems effective for a while. But then trouble comes swirling, up to the neck. Some find deliverance by drowning their sorrows with alcohol or drugs. It works for a while, then comes swirling up to the neck. People seek deliverance in money and career, in bodily health and strength, in education and skills, in families, in networks of well-connected people. They all work to a degree, for a season, but none can match the eternal, gracious deliverance God offers.
The original Immanuel prophecy meant that God offers to be present to bless. But if we refuse his blessing, he is still present, to judge. The original Immanuel prophecy of Isaiah bears a radical message: God is always present, always with us, either to bless or to curse.
Later on, Isaiah makes this point another way. If Israel trusts in God, “he will be a sanctuary.” If not, “he will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall” (Isa. 8:14). Yet Israel’s lack of faith will not permanently thwart God’s plan. Deliverance will come through Immanuel, God with us. We must trust this Immanuel:
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
… upholding it
with justice and righteousness … forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this. (9:6–7)
Joseph, Mary, and Immanuel
According to Matthew, the blessed side of the Immanuel prophecy has now come. God has fulfilled it in the birth of Jesus. The promise of military deliverance for Ahaz prefigured something far greater. While the first Immanuel deliverance was powerful, it chiefly served to prepare for the second. In the first Immanuel, God offered to be with Ahaz in a sign. Now Jesus will be God with us in person. As before, it is God’s design to bless through Immanuel. Still, God has acted and, as we learned from Ahaz, Immanuel is here whether anyone likes it or not.
Some people respond to the birth of Jesus with indifference, much as Ahaz was indifferent to Isaiah’s promise of Immanuel. They think it is a nice tradition and an amusing tale that some people happen to believe. They may even be happy for friends or neighbors who are comforted to think that there is a supernatural power watching over them.
Such thinking completely misses the point of Isaiah and Matthew. Immanuel is not a religious option for those who choose to embrace it. Immanuel is the truth, whether we choose to embrace it or not!
Some people like to pretend uncomfortable events never really happened: Stalin’s murder of Ukrainian peasants, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the slave trade all somehow prompt groups that deny that such events actually happened. Others choose to block such tragedies from their minds. Nonetheless the tragedies did happen.
Immanuel happened too. Matthew declares that God is with us. If we believe, he is with us to bless and to save. If not, God is still with us, to call us to repentance. If you reject that, God is still with you, as judge. God’s deliverance is the only one that works in the end. Most people can work their plan for a while. But there comes a time when dark waters swirl up to every neck, when disaster or death looms. At that time we will want to be able to call upon Immanuel. He is our abiding hope.
Joseph and the Birth of Jesus, Our Immanuel
When the angel had finished speaking, Joseph awoke, believed, and “did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him.” That is, he “took Mary home as his wife” (Matt. 1:24). His submission to God was as powerful and complete as that of Mary, who also offered herself as the servant of the Lord. Joseph refused to be led by shame or anger. He laid aside the plausible plan of divorce and took Mary as his wife.
To make the supernatural conception of Jesus perfectly clear, Matthew says Joseph “had no union with [Mary] until she gave birth to a son.” Literally, Joseph “did not know her until she had given birth to a son.” Then Joseph took her newborn baby and “gave him the name Jesus” just as the angel had said (1:25).
What a tender picture of living faith! Mary and Joseph listened to God. They silenced their emotions of fear and shame and obeyed the Lord. Why? Because they understood that God is with his people to save. Because they were willing to listen to their Lord, whatever people might think or say. They show us how to listen and how to obey the voice of God rather than our impulses.
This portion of Matthew offers a picture of faith, but more than that it is an account of the acts of the triune God. The Father’s plan of redemption has come to the beginning of its climactic phase. The Spirit’s prophecy to Ahaz and through Ahaz set up the Immanuel principle that now comes to fulfillment. The Spirit also fashioned life in the womb of Mary and moved the hearts of Mary and Joseph to accept their role in the divine drama. Finally, the eternal Son has entered the world of humanity.
May the Spirit work in us to receive what God began to accomplish in the birth of Jesus. May we also submit our plans and our emotions to him, as Joseph did. May we give our hearts and minds to him as Mary and Joseph did. May we know that God is with us, to bless us, in every season of life. In every distress, let us turn to God for comfort. In joy and in blessing, let us not ascribe it to good fortune or hard work, but to Immanuel, who is present to bless. God is with us in the person of Jesus. May we have the faith, trust, love, and obedience to receive the blessings of Immanuel.
The Birth of Jesus (1:18–25)
Two matters call for brief remarks: the historicity of the virgin birth (more properly, virginal conception), and the theological emphases surrounding this theme in Matthew 1–2 and its relation to the NT.
First, the historicity of the virgin birth is questioned for many reasons.
- The accounts in Matthew and Luke are apparently independent and highly divergent. This argues for creative forces in the church making up all or parts of the stories in order to explain the person of Jesus. But the stories have long been shown to be compatible (Machen, Virgin Birth), even mutually complementary. Moreover, literary independence of Matthew and Luke at this point does not demand the conclusion that the two evangelists were ignorant of each other’s content. Yet if they were, their differences suggest to some the strength of mutual compatibility without collusion. Matthew focuses largely on Joseph, Luke on Mary. R. E. Brown (Birth of the Messiah, 35) does not accept this because he finds it inconceivable that Joseph could have told his story without mentioning the annunciation or that Mary could have passed on her story without mentioning the flight to Egypt. True enough, though it does not follow that the evangelists were bound to include all they knew. It is hard to imagine how the annunciation would have fit in very well with Matthew’s themes. Moreover, we have already observed that Matthew was prepared to omit things he knew in order to present his chosen themes coherently and concisely.
- Some simply discount the supernatural. Goulder (Midrash and Lection, 33) says Matthew made the stories up; Schweizer contrasts the ancient world in which virgin birth was (allegedly) an accepted notion with modern scientific limitations on what is possible (similarly Robert J. Miller, Born Divine: The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God [Santa Rosa, Calif.: Polebridge, 2003]). But the antithesis is greatly exaggerated. Thoroughgoing rationalists were not uncommon in the first century (e.g., Lucretius); and millions of modern Christians, scientifically aware, find little difficulty in believing in the virgin birth or in a God who is capable of intervening miraculously in what is, after all, his own creation. (On Miller, see the rather scathing review by Kim Paffenroth in CBQ 68 : 341–42.)
More important, Matthew’s point in these chapters is surely that the virgin birth and attendant circumstances were most extraordinary. Only here does he mention Magi; and dreams and visions as a means of guidance are by no means common in the NT (though even here one wonders whether Western Christianity could learn something from Third-World Christianity). Certainly Matthew’s account is infinitely more sober than the wildly speculative stories preserved in the apocryphal gospels (e.g., Prot. Jas. 12:3–20:4; cf. Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha, 1:381–85). R. E. Brown (Birth of the Messiah) accepts the historicity of the virgin birth but discounts the historicity of the visit of the Magi and related events. But if he can swallow the virgin birth, it is difficult to see why he strains out the Magi. (See the useful book of Manuel Miguens, The Virgin Birth: An Evaluation of Scriptural Evidence [Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1975].)
- Many point to artificialities in the narrative: e.g., the structure of the genealogy or the delay in mentioning Bethlehem as the place of birth (e.g., Hill). We have noted, however, that though Matthew’s arrangement of the genealogy gives us more than a mere table of names and dates, it does not tell us less. More than any of the synoptists, Matthew delights in topical arrangements. But that does not make his accounts less than historical. We are not shut up to the extreme choice—historical chronicles or theological invention! Matthew does not mention Bethlehem in 1:18–25 because it does not suit any of his themes. In ch. 2, however, as Tatum has shown (W. B. Tatum Jr., “The Matthean Infancy Narratives: Their Form, Structure, and Relation to the Theology of the First Evangelist” [PhD diss., Duke University, 1967]), one of the themes unifying Matthew’s narrative is Jesus’ “geographical origins”; and therefore Bethlehem is introduced.
- It has become increasingly common to identify the literary genre in Mt 1–2 as “midrash” or “midrashic haggadah” and to conclude that these stories are not intended to be taken literally (e.g., with widely differing perspectives, Gundry; Goulder, Midrash and Lection; Davies, Setting, 66–67). There is nothing fundamentally objectionable in the suggestion that some stories in the Bible are not meant to be taken as fact; parables are such stories. The problem is the slipperiness of the categories (see Introduction, section 12.b; comments at 2:16–18). If the genre has unambiguous formal characteristics, there should be little problem in recognizing them. But this is far from being so. The frequently cited parallels boast as many formal differences (compared with Mt 1–2) as similarities. To cite one obvious example—Jewish midrashim (in the technical, fourth-century sense) present stories as illustrative material by way of comment on a running OT text. By contrast, chs. 1–2 offers no running OT text. The continuity of the text depends on the story line; and the OT quotations, taken from a variety of OT books, could be removed without affecting that continuity (cf. M. J. Down, “The Matthean Birth Narratives,” ExpTim 90 [1978–79]: 51–52; France, Jesus and the Old Testament; see comments at 2:16–18).
R. E. Brown (Birth of the Messiah, 557–63) argues convincingly that Matthew 1–2 is not midrash. Yet he thinks the sort of person who could invent stories to explain OT texts (midrash) could also invent stories to explain Jesus. Matthew 1–2, though not itself midrash, is at least midrashic. That may be so. Unfortunately, not only does the statement fall short of proof, but the appeal to a known and recognizable literary genre is thus lost. So we have no objective basis for arguing that Matthew’s first readers would readily detect his midrashic methods. Of course, if “midrashic” means that Matthew intends to present a panorama of OT allusions and themes, these chapters are certainly midrashic. In that sense, the studies of Goulder, Gundry, Davies, and others have served us well by warning us against a too rigid pattern of linear thought. But used in this sense, it is not at all clear that “midrashic material” is necessarily unhistorical.
5. A related objection insists that these stories “are not primarily didactic” but “kerygmatic” (Davies, Setting, 67), that they are intended as proclamations about the truth of the person of Jesus but not as factual information. The rigid dichotomy between proclamation and teaching is not as defensible as when C. H. Dodd first proposed it (see comments at 3:1). More important, we may ask just what the proclamation intended to proclaim. If the stories express the appreciation of the first Christians for Jesus, precisely what did they appreciate? On the face of it, Matthew in chs. 1–2 is not saying something vague, such as, “Jesus was so wonderful there must be a touch of the divine about him,” but rather, “Jesus is the promised Messiah of the line of David, and he is ‘Immanuel,’ ‘God with us,’ because his birth was the result of God’s supernatural intervention, making Jesus God’s very Son; and his early months were stamped with strange occurrences which, in the light of subsequent events, weave a coherent pattern of theological truths and historical attestation to divine providence in the matter.”
6. Some argue that the (to us) artificial way these chapters cite the OT shows small concern for historicity. The reverse argument is surely more impressive: If the events of chs. 1–2 do not relate easily to the OT texts, this attests their historical credibility; for no one in his right mind would invent “fulfillment” episodes problematic to the texts being fulfilled. The fulfillment texts, though difficult, do fit into a coherent pattern (see Introduction, section 11.b; comments at vv. 22–23). More important, their presence shows that Matthew sees Jesus as one who fulfills the OT. This not only sets the stage for some of Matthew’s most important themes; it also means Matthew is working from a perspective on salvation history that depends on before and after, prophecy and fulfillment, type and antitype, relative ignorance and progressive revelation. This has an important bearing on our discussion of midrash, because whatever else Jewish midrash may be, it is not related to salvation history or fulfillment schemes. Add to the foregoing considerations the fact that, wherever in chs. 1–2 he can be tested against the known background of Herod the Great, Matthew proves reliable (some details below). There is a good case for treating chs. 1–2 as both history and theology.
Second, the following theological considerations require mention.
- Often it is argued or even assumed (e.g., Dunn, Christology, 49–50) that the concepts “virginal” conception and “preexistence” applied to the one person Jesus are mutually exclusive. Certainly it is difficult to see how a divine being could become genuinely human by means of an ordinary birth. Nevertheless, there is no logical or theological reason to think that virginal conception and preexistence preclude each other.
- Related to this is the theory of R. E. Brown (Birth of the Messiah, 140–41), who proposes a retrojected Christology. The early Christians, he argues, first focused attention on Jesus’ resurrection, which they perceived as the moment of his installation into his messianic role. Then with further reflection they pushed back the time of his installation to his baptism, then to his birth, and finally to a theory regarding his preexistence. There may be some truth to the scheme. Just as the first Christians did not come to an instant grasp of the relationship between law and gospel (as the book of Acts amply demonstrates), so their understanding of Jesus doubtless matured and deepened with time and further revelation. But the theory often depends on a rigid and false reconstruction of early church history (see Introduction, section 2) and dates the documents, against other evidence, on the basis of this reconstruction. Worse, in the hands of some it transforms the understanding of the disciples into historical reality—i.e., Jesus had no preexistence and was not virgin born, but these things were progressively predicated of him by his followers. Gospel evidence for Jesus’ self-perception as preexistent is then facilely dismissed as late and inauthentic. The method is of doubtful worth.
Matthew, despite his strong insistence on Jesus’ virginal conception, includes several veiled allusions to Jesus’ preexistence, and there is no reason to think he found the two concepts incompatible. Moreover R. H. Fuller (“The Conception/Birth of Jesus as a Christological Moment,” JSNT 1 : 37–52) has shown that the virginal conception-birth motif in the NT is not infrequently connected with the “sending of the Son” motif, which (contra Fuller) in many places already presupposes the preexistence of the Son.
- We are dealing in these chapters with King Messiah, who comes to his people in covenant relationship. The point is well established, if occasionally exaggerated, by Brian Nolan (Royal Son of God), who speaks of the “Royal Covenant Christology.”
- It is remarkable that the title “Son of God,” important later in Matthew, is not found in chs. 1–2. It may lurk behind 2:15. Still it would be false to argue that Matthew does not connect the virgin birth with the title “Son of God” (though more commonly Matthew connects the title with Davidic royal messianism). Matthew 1–2 serve as a finely wrought prologue for every major theme in the gospel. We must therefore understand Matthew to be telling us that if Jesus is physically Mary’s son and legally Joseph’s son, at an even more fundamental level he is God’s Son; and in this, Matthew agrees with Luke’s statement (Lk 1:35). The dual paternity, one legal and one divine, is unambiguous (see Cyrus H. Gordon, “Paternity at Two Levels,” JBL 96 : 101).
18 The word translated “birth” is, in the best MSS (see Notes), the word translated “genealogy” in 1:1. Maier prefers “history” of Jesus Christ, taking the phrase to refer to the rest of Matthew’s gospel. Yet it is best to take the word to mean “birth” or “origins” in the sense of the beginnings of Jesus Messiah. Even a well-developed Christology would not want to read the man “Jesus” and his name back into a preexistent state (see comments at 1:1). The pledge to be married was legally binding. Only a divorce writ could break it, and infidelity at that stage was considered adultery (cf. Dt 22:23–24; Moore, Judaism, 2:121–22). The marriage itself took place when the groom (already called “husband,” Mt 1:19) ceremoniously took the bride home (see comments at 25:1–13). Mary is here introduced unobtrusively. Though comparing the gospel accounts gives us a picture of her, she does not figure largely in Matthew.
“Before they came together” (prin ē synelthein autous) occasionally refers in classical Greek to sexual intercourse (LSJ, 1712); in the other thirty instances of synerchomai (GK 5302) in the NT, there is, however, no sexual overtone. But here sexual union is included, occurring at the formal marriage when the “wife” moved in with her “husband.” Only then was sexual intercourse proper. The phrase affirms that Mary’s pregnancy was discovered while she was still betrothed, and the context presupposes that both Mary and Joseph had been chaste (cf. McHugh, Mother of Jesus, 157–63; and for the customs of the day, m. Qidd. [“Betrothals”] and m. Ketub. [“Marriage Deeds”]).
That Mary was “found” to be with child does not suggest a surreptitious attempt at concealment (“found out”) but only that her pregnancy became obvious. This pregnancy came about through the Holy Spirit (even more prominent in Luke’s birth narratives). There is no hint of pagan deity-human coupling in crassly physical terms. Instead, the power of the Lord, manifest in the Holy Spirit who was expected to be active in the messianic age, miraculously brought about the conception.
19 The peculiar Greek expression in this verse allows several interpretations. There are three important ones.
- Because Joseph, knowing about the virginal conception, was a just man and had no desire to bring the matter out in the open (i.e., to divulge this miraculous conception), he felt unworthy to continue his plans to marry one so highly favored and planned to withdraw (so Gundry; Schlatter; McHugh, Mother of Jesus, 164–72). This assumes that Mary told Joseph about the conception. Nevertheless, the natural way to read vv. 18–19 is that Joseph learned of his betrothed’s condition when it became unmistakable, not when she told him. Moreover, the angel’s reason for Joseph to proceed with the marriage (v. 20) assumes (contra Zerwick, Biblical Greek, para. 477) that Joseph did not know about the virginal conception.
- Because Joseph was a just man and because he did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace, he proposed a quiet divorce. The problem with this is that “just” (NIV, “righteous,” GK 1465) is not defined according to OT law but is taken in the sense of merciful, not given to passionate vengeance, or even nice (cf. 1 Sa 24:17). But this is not its normal sense. Strictly speaking, justice conceived in Mosaic prescriptions demanded some sort of action.
- Because he was a righteous man, Joseph therefore could not in conscience marry Mary, who was now thought to be unfaithful. And because such a marriage would have been a tacit admission of his own guilt and also because he was unwilling to expose her to the disgrace of public divorce, Joseph therefore chose a quieter way, permitted by the law itself. The full rigor of the law might have led to Mary’s stoning, though that was rarely carried out in the first century. Still, a public divorce was possible, though Joseph was apparently unwilling to expose Mary to such shame. The law also allowed for private divorce before two witnesses (Nu 5:11–31 interpreted as in m. Soṭah 1:1–5; cf. David Hill, “A Note on Matthew i.19,” ExpTim 76 [1964–65]: 133–34; A. Tosato, “Joseph, Being a Just Man (Mt 1:19),” CBQ 41 : 547–51). That was what Joseph purposed. It would leave both his righteousness (his conformity to the law) and his compassion intact.
20 Joseph tried to solve his dilemma in what seemed to him the best way possible. Only then did God intervene with a dream. Dreams as means of divine communication in the NT are concentrated in Matthew’s prologue (1:20; 2:2, 13, 19, 22; elsewhere, possibly 27:19; Ac 2:17). An “angel of the Lord” (four times in the prologue: Mt 1:20, 24; 2:13, 19) calls to mind divine messengers in past ages (e.g., Ge 16:7–14; 22:11–18; Ex 3:2–4:16), in which it was not always clear whether the heavenly “messenger” (the meaning of angelos, GK 34) was a manifestation of Yahweh. They most commonly appeared as men. We must not read medieval paintings into the word “angel” or the stylized cherubim of Revelation 4:6–8. The focus is on God’s gracious intervention and the messenger’s private communication, not on the details of angelology and their panoramic sweeps of history common in Jewish apocalyptic literature (cf. Bonnard).
The angel’s opening words, “Joseph son of David,” tie this pericope to the preceding genealogy, maintain interest in the theme of the Davidic Messiah, and, from Joseph’s perspective, alert him to the significance of the role he is to play. The prohibition “do not be afraid” confirms that Joseph had already decided on his course when God intervened. He was to “take” Mary home as his wife—an expression primarily reflecting marriage customs of the day but not excluding sexual intercourse (cf. TDNT, 4:11–14, for other uses of the verb)—because Mary’s pregnancy was the direct action of the Holy Spirit (a reason that makes nonsense of the attempt by James LaGrand [“How Was the Virgin Mary ‘Like a Man’ …? A Note on Mt 1:18b and Related Syriac Christian Texts,” NovT 22 (1980): 97–107] to make the reference to the Holy Spirit in v. 18, ek pneumatos hagiou [“through the Holy Spirit”], mean that Mary brought forth, “as a man, by will”).
21 It was no doubt divine grace that solicited Mary’s cooperation before the conception and Joseph’s cooperation only after it. Here Joseph is drawn into the mystery of the incarnation. In patriarchal times, either a mother (Ge 4:25) or a father (Ge 4:26; 5:3; cf. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 130) could name a child. According to Luke 1:31, Mary was told Jesus’ name, but Joseph was told both the name and the reason for it. The Greek is literally “you will call his name Jesus,” strange in both English and Greek. Not only is this a Semitism (BDF, para. 157 —the expression recurs in Mt 1:23, 25; Lk 1:13, 31); it uses the future indicative (kaleseis, lit., “you will call,” GK 2813) with imperatival force—hence the NIV, “You are to give him the name Jesus.” This construction is very rare in the NT, except where the LXX is being cited, and the effect is to give the verse a strong OT nuance.
“Jesus” (Iēsous, GK 2652) is the Greek form of “Joshua” (cf. Gk. of Ac 7:45; Heb 4:8), which, whether in the long form yehōšûaʿ (GK 3397, “Yahweh is salvation,” Ex 24:13) or in one of the short forms, e.g., yēs̆ûaʿ (“Yahweh saves,” Ne 7:7), identifies Mary’s son as the one who brings Yahweh’s promised eschatological salvation. There are several Joshuas in the OT, at least two of them not very significant (1 Sa 6:14; 2 Ki 23:8). Two others, however, are used in the NT as types of Christ: Joshua, successor to Moses and the one who led the people into the promised land (and a type of Christ in Heb 4), and Joshua the high priest, contemporary of Zerubbabel (Ezr 2:2; 3:2–9; Ne 7:7), “the Branch” who builds the temple of the Lord (Zec 6:11–13). But instead of referring to either of these, the angel explains the significance of the name by referring to Psalm 130:8: “He [Yahweh] himself will redeem Israel from all their sins” (cf. Gundry, Use of the Old Testament, 127–28).
There was much Jewish expectation of a Messiah who would “redeem” Israel from Roman tyranny and even purify his people, whether by fiat or appeal to law (e.g., Ps. Sol. 17). But there was no expectation that the Davidic Messiah would give his own life as a ransom (Mt 20:28) to save his people from their sins. The verb “save” (sōzō, GK 5392) can refer to deliverance from physical danger (8:25), disease (9:21–22), or even death (24:22); in the NT it commonly refers to the comprehensive salvation inaugurated by Jesus that will be consummated at his return. Here it focuses on what is central, namely, salvation from sins; for in the biblical perspective, sin is the basic (if not always the immediate) cause of all other calamities. This verse therefore orients the reader to the fundamental purpose of Jesus’ coming and the essential nature of the reign he inaugurates as King Messiah, heir of David’s throne (cf. Ridderbos, Coming of the Kingdom, 193, 201).
Though to Joseph “his people” would be the Jews, even Joseph would understand from the OT that some Jews fell under God’s judgment, while others became a godly remnant. In any event, it is not long until Matthew says that both John the Baptist (3:9) and Jesus (8:11) picture Gentiles joining with the godly remnant to become disciples of the Messiah and members of “his people” (see comments at 16:18; cf. Ge 49:10; Tit 2:13–14; Rev 14:4). The words “his people” are therefore full of meaning that is progressively unpacked as Matthew’s gospel unfolds. They refer to “Messiah’s people.”
22 Although most EV conclude the angel’s remarks at the end of v. 21, there is good reason to think they continue to the end of v. 23, or at least to the end of the word “Immanuel.” This particular fulfillment formula occurs only three times in Matthew—here; 21:4; 26:56. In the last, it is natural to take it as part of Jesus’ reported speech (cf. 26:55), and this is possible, though less likely, in 21:4. Matthew’s patterns are fairly consistent. So it is not unnatural to extend the quotation to the end of 1:23 as well. (The JB recognizes Matthew’s consistency by ending Jesus’ words in 26:55, making 26:56 Matthew’s remark!) This is more convincing when we recall that only these three fulfillment formulas use the perfect gegonen (NIV, “took place”) instead of the expected aorist. Some take the verb as an instance of a perfect standing for an aorist (so BDF, para. 343, but this is a disputed classification). Others think it means the event “stands recorded” in the abiding Christian tradition (McNeile; Moule, Idiom Book, 15); still others take it as a stylistic indicator that Matthew himself introduced the fulfillment passage (Rothfuchs, Erfüllungszitate, 33–36). But if we hold that Matthew presents the angel as saying the words, then the perfect may enjoy its normal force: “all this has taken place” (cf. Fenton; Stendahl, “Matthew,” in Peake’s Commentary).
R. E. Brown (Birth of the Messiah, 144 n. 31) objects that nowhere in Scripture does an angel cite Scripture in this fashion; but, equally, nowhere in Scripture is there a virgin birth in this fashion. Matthew knew that Satan can cite Scripture (4:6–7); he may not have thought it strange if an angel does. Broadus’s objection, that the angel would in that case be anticipating an event that has not yet occurred, and this is strange when cast in fulfillment language, lacks weight, for the conception has occurred and the pregnancy has become well advanced, even if the birth has not yet taken place. Joseph needs to know at this stage that “all this took place” to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet. The weightiest argument is the perfect tense.
The last clause is phrased with exquisite care, literally, “the word spoken by [hypo] the Lord through [dia] the prophet.” The prepositions make a distinction between the mediate and the intermediate agent (Grammar, 636), presupposing a view of Scripture like that in 2 Peter 1:21. Matthew uses the verb “fulfill” (plēroō, GK 4444) primarily in his own fulfillment formulas (1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:56; 27:9; cf. 26:54) but also in a few other contexts (3:15; 5:17; 13:48; 23:32). (On Matthew’s understanding of fulfillment and on the origins of his fulfillment texts, see comments at 5:17; Introduction, section 11.b.)
Here two observations are in order. First, most of Matthew’s OT quotations are easy enough to understand, but the difficult exceptions have sometimes tended to increase the difficulty of the easier ones. Hard cases make bad theology as well as bad law. Second, Matthew is not simply ripping texts out of OT contexts because he needs to find a prophecy in order to generate a fulfillment. Discernible principles govern his choices, the most important being that he finds in the OT not only isolated predictions regarding the Messiah but also OT history and people as paradigms that, to those with eyes to see, point forward to the Messiah (see comments at 2:15).
23 This verse, on which the literature is legion, is reasonably clear in its context here in Matthew. Mary is the virgin; Jesus is her son, Immanuel. But because it is a quotation from Isaiah 7:14, complex issues are raised concerning Matthew’s use of the OT.
The linguistic evidence is not as determinative as some think. The Hebrew word ʿalmâ (GK 6625) is not precisely equivalent to the English word “virgin” (NIV), in which all the focus is on the lack of sexual experience; nor is it precisely equivalent to “young woman,” in which the focus is on age without reference to sexual experience. Many prefer the translation “young woman of marriageable age.” Yet most of the few OT occurrences refer to a young woman of marriageable age who is also a virgin. The most disputed passage is Proverbs 30:19: “The way of a man with a maiden” (italics added). Here the focus of the word is certainly not on virginity. Some claim that here the maiden cannot possibly be a virgin; others (see esp. E. J. Young, Studies in Isaiah [London: Tyndale, 1954], 143–98; Richard Niessen, “The Virginity of the עַלְמָה in Isaiah 7:14,” BSac 137 : 133–50) insist that Proverbs 30:19 refers to a young man wooing and winning a maiden still a virgin.
Although it is fair to say that most OT occurrences presuppose that the ʿalmâ is a virgin, because of Proverbs 30:19, one cannot be certain the word necessarily means that. Linguistics has shown that the etymological arguments (reviewed by Richard Niessen) have little force. Young argues that ʿalmâ is chosen by Isaiah because the most likely alternative (betûlâ, GK 1435) can refer to a married woman (Joel 1:8 is commonly cited; Young is supported by Gordon J. Wenham, “Bethulah, ‘A Girl of Marriageable Age,’ ” VT 22 : 326–29). Again, however, the linguistic argument is not as clear-cut as we might like. Tom Wadsworth (“Is There a Hebrew Word for Virgin? Bethulah in the Old Testament,” ResQ 23 : 161–71) insists that every occurrence of betûlâ in the OT does refer to a virgin—the woman in Joel 1:8, for instance, is betrothed. Again the evidence is a trifle ambiguous. For the most recent bibliography, see the notes in R. Bruce Compton, “The Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14–16,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 12 (2007): 3–15. In short, there is a presumption in favor of rendering ʿalmâ by “young virgin” or the like in Isaiah 7:14. Nevertheless, other evidence must be given a hearing.
The LXX renders the word by parthenos (GK 4221), which almost always means “virgin.” Yet even with this word there are exceptions. Genesis 34:3 refers to Dinah as a parthenos, even though the previous verse makes it clear she is no longer a virgin. This sort of datum prompts Dodd (“New Testament Translation Problems I,” 301–5) to suggest that parthenos means “young woman” even in Matthew 1:23 and Luke 1:27. This will not do; the overwhelming majority of the occurrences of parthenos in both biblical and profane Greek require the rendering “virgin”; and the unambiguous context of Matthew 1 (cf. vv. 16, 18, 20, 25) puts Matthew’s intent beyond dispute, as Jean Carmignac (“The Meaning of parthenos in Luke 1.27: A reply to C. H. Dodd,” BT 28 : 327–30) was quick to point out. If, unlike the LXX, the later (second century AD) Greek renderings of the Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 prefer neanis (“young woman”) to parthenos (so Aq., Symm., Theod.), we may legitimately suspect a conscious effort by the Jewish translators to avoid the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 7:14.
The crucial question is how we are to understand Isaiah 7:14 in its relationship to Matthew 1:23. Of the many suggestions, six deserve mention.
- David Hill, J. B. Taylor (Illustrated Bible Dictionary [ed. Douglas], 3:1625), and others support the argument of W. C. van Unnik (“Dominus Vobiscum,” in New Testament Essays [ed. A. J. B. Higgins; Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1959], 270–305), who claimed Isaiah meant that a young woman named her child Immanuel as a tribute to God’s presence and deliverance and that the passage applies to Jesus because Immanuel fits his mission. This does not take the “sign” (Isa 7:11, 14) seriously; v. 11 expects something spectacular. Nor does it adequately consider the time lapse (vv. 15–17). Moreover, it assumes a casual link between Isaiah and Matthew.
- Many others take Isaiah as saying that a young woman—a virgin at the time of the prophecy (Broadus; Blomberg, “Matthew,” in CNTUOT)—will bear a son and that before he reaches the age of discretion (perhaps less than two years from the time of the prophecy), Ahaz will be delivered from his enemies. Matthew, being an inspired writer, sees a later fulfillment in Jesus; and we must accept it on Matthew’s authority. W. S. LaSor thinks this provides canonical support for a sensus plenior (“fuller sense”) approach to Scripture (“The Sensus Plenior and Biblical Interpretation,” in Scripture, Tradition, and Interpretation [ed. W. W. Gasque and W. S. LaSor; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978], 271–72). In addition to several deficiencies in interpreting Isaiah 7:14–17 (e.g., the supernaturalness of the sign in 7:11 is not continued in 7:14), this position is intrinsically unstable, seeking either a deeper connection between Isaiah and Matthew or less reliance on Matthew’s authority. Hendriksen, 140, holds that the destruction of Pekah and Rezin was a clear sign that the line of the Messiah was being protected. But this is to postulate, without textual warrant, two signs—the sign of the child and the sign of the deliverance—and it presupposes that Ahaz possessed remarkable theological acumen in recognizing the latter sign.
- Many (esp. older) commentators (e.g., Alexander; E. J. Young; Hengstenberg, Christology of the Old Testament) reject any notion of double fulfillment and say that Isaiah 7:14 refers exclusively to Jesus Christ. This does justice to the expectation of a miraculous sign, the significance of “Immanuel,” and the most likely meaning of ʿalmâ and parthenos. But it puts more strain on the relation of a sign to Ahaz. It seems weak to say that before a period of time equivalent to the length of time between Jesus’ (Immanuel’s) conception and his reaching an age of discretion, Ahaz’s enemies will be destroyed. Most commentators in this group insist on a miraculous element in “sign” (v. 11). But though Immanuel’s birth is miraculous, how is the “sign” given Ahaz miraculous?
- A few have argued (e.g., Gene Rice, “A Neglected Interpretation of the Immanuel Prophecy,” ZAW 90 : 220–27) that in Isaiah 7:14–17 Immanuel represents the righteous remnant—God is “with them”—and that the mother is Zion. This may be fairly applied to Jesus and Mary in Matthew 1:23, since Jesus’ personal history seems to recapitulate something of the Jews’ national history (cf. 2:15; 4:1–4). Yet this sounds contrived. Would Ahaz have understood the words so metaphorically? And though Jesus sometimes appears to recapitulate Israel, it is doubtful that NT writers ever thought that Mary recapitulates Zion.
- R. Bruce Compton (cited above) has recently argued that Isaiah 7:13–14, with its collection of plural “you” expressions, is addressed not to Ahaz but to the entire nation, giving them reassurance that the Davidic line will prevail. By contrast, Isaiah 7:15, with its singular “you,” is addressed to Ahaz. It is not only the threat to the Davidic line that is at issue, but the threat to this specific Davidic king. To him the assurance is given that before the short period of time specified, Rezin and Pekah will be threats no more. In short, Compton envisages a prophecy in two parts. That may be, but it sounds like a way out of a difficulty rather than an obvious reading of the text.
- The most plausible view is that of J. A. Motyer (“Context and Content in the Interpretation of Isaiah 7:14,” TynBul 21 : 118–25). It is a modified form of the third interpretation and depends in part on recognizing a crucial feature in Isaiah. Signs in the OT may function as a present persuader (e.g., Ex 4:8–9) or as future confirmation (e.g., Ex 3:12). Isaiah 7:14 falls in the latter case because Immanuel’s birth comes too late to be a “present persuader.” The “sign” (v. 11) points primarily to threat and foreboding. Ahaz has rejected the Lord’s gracious offer (vv. 10–12), and Isaiah responds in wrath (v. 13). The “curds and honey” Immanuel will eat (v. 15) represent the only food left in the land on the day of wrath (vv. 18–22). Even the promise of Ephraim’s destruction (v. 8) must be understood to embrace a warning (v. 9b; Motyer, “Context and Content,” 121–22). Isaiah sees a threat, not simply to Ahaz, but to the “house of David” (vv. 2, 13), which is caught up in faithlessness. To this faithless house Isaiah utters his prophecy. Therefore, Immanuel’s birth follows the coming events (it is a “future confirmation”) and will take place when the Davidic dynasty has lost the throne.
Motyer shows the close parallels between the prophetic word to Judah (Isa 7:1–9:7) and the prophetic word to Ephraim (9:8–11:16). To both comes the moment of decision as the Lord’s word threatens wrath (7:1–17; 9:8–10:4), the time of judgment mediated by the Assyrian invasion (7:18–8:8; 10:5–15), the destruction of God’s foes but the salvation of a remnant (8:9–22; 10:16–34), and the promise of a glorious hope as the Davidic monarch reigns and brings prosperity to his people (9:1–7; 11:1–16). The twofold structure argues for the cohesive unity between the prophecy of Judah and that to Ephraim. If this is correct, Isaiah 7:1–9:7 must be read as a unit—i.e., 7:14 must not be treated in isolation. The promised Immanuel (7:14) will thwart all opponents (8:10) and appear in Galilee of the Gentiles (9:1) as a great light to those in the land of the shadow of death (9:2). He is the Child and Son called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” in 9:6, whose government and peace will never end as he reigns on David’s throne forever (9:7).
Much of Motyer’s work is confirmed by an article by Joseph Jensen (“The Age of Immanuel,” CBQ 41 : 220–39; he does not refer to Motyer), who extends the plausibility of this structure by showing that Isaiah 7:15 should be taken in a final sense; i.e., Immanuel will eat the bread of affliction in order to learn (unlike Ahaz!) the lesson of obedience. There is no reference to “age of discretion.” Further, Jensen believes that Isaiah 7:16–25 points to Immanuel’s coming only after the destruction of the land (6:9–13 suggests the destruction extends to Judah as well as to Israel); that Immanuel and Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, Isaiah’s son (8:1), are not the same; and that only Isaiah’s son sets a time limit relevant to Ahaz.
If Motyer’s view fairly represents Isaiah’s thought, and if Matthew understood him in this way, then much light is shed on the first gospel. The Immanuel figure of Isaiah 7:14 is a messianic figure, a point Matthew has rightly grasped. Moreover this interpretation turns on an understanding of the place of the exile in Isaiah 6–12, and Matthew has divided up his genealogy (1:11–12, 17) precisely in order to draw attention to the exile. In 2:17–18 the theme of the exile returns. A little later, as Jesus begins his ministry (4:12–16), Matthew quotes Isaiah 9:1–2, which, if the interpretation adopted here is correct, properly belongs to the Immanuel prophecies of Isaiah 7:14; 9:6. Small wonder that after such comments by Matthew, Jesus’ next words announced the kingdom (4:17; cf. Isa 9:7). Isaiah’s reference to Immanuel’s affliction for the sake of learning obedience anticipates Jesus’ humiliation, suffering, and obedient sonship, a recurring theme in this gospel.
This interpretation also partially explains Matthew’s interest in the Davidic lineage, and it strengthens a strong interpretation of “Immanuel.” Most scholars (e.g., Bonnard) suppose that this name in Isaiah reflects a hope that God would make himself present with his people (“Immanuel” derives from ʿimmānû ʾēl, “God with us”), and they apply the name to Jesus in a similar way, to mean that God is with us, and for us, because of Jesus. But if Immanuel in Isaiah is a messianic figure whose titles include “Mighty God,” there is reason to think that “Immanuel” refers to Jesus himself, that he is “God with us.” Matthew’s use of the preposition “with” at the end of 1:23 favors this (see J. C. Fenton, “Matthew and the Divinity of Jesus: Three Questions Concerning Matthew 1:20–23,” in Studia Biblica 1978 [ed. Livingstone], 2:81). Though “Immanuel” is not a name in the sense that “Jesus” is Messiah’s name (1:21), in the OT Solomon was named “Jedidiah” (“Beloved of Yahweh,” 2 Sa 12:25), even though he apparently was not called that. Similarly Immanuel is a “name” in the sense of title or description.
No greater blessing can be conceived than for God to dwell with his people (Isa 60:18–20; Eze 48:35; Rev 21:23). Jesus is the one called “God with us” (the designation evokes Jn 1:14, 18). As if that were not enough, Jesus promises just before his ascension to be with us to the end of the age (28:20; cf. 18:20), when he will return to share his messianic banquet with his people (25:10).
If “Immanuel” is rightly interpreted in this sense, then the question must be raised whether “Jesus” (1:21) should receive the same treatment. Does “Jesus” (“Yahweh saves”) mean Mary’s son merely brings Yahweh’s salvation, or is he himself in some sense the Yahweh who saves? If “Immanuel” entails the higher Christology, it is not implausible that Matthew sees the same in “Jesus.” The least we can say is that Matthew does not hesitate to apply OT passages descriptive of Yahweh directly to Jesus (see comments at 3:3).
Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah 7:14 is very close to the LXX, but he changes “you will call” to “they will call.” This may reflect a rendering of the original Hebrew, if 1QIsaa is pointed appropriately (cf. Gundry, Use of the Old Testament, 90). But there is more here. The people whose sins Jesus forgives (1:21) are the ones who will gladly call him “God with us.”
24–25 When Joseph woke up, he “took Mary home as his wife” (v. 24; same expression as in 1:20). Throughout chs. 1–2, the pattern of God’s sovereign intervention followed by Joseph’s or the Magi’s response is repeated. While the story is told simply, Joseph’s obedience and submission under these circumstances is scarcely less remarkable than Mary’s (Lk 1:38).
Matthew wants to make Jesus’ virginal conception quite unambiguous, for he adds that Joseph had no sexual union with Mary (lit., he did not “know” her, an OT euphemism) until she gave birth to Jesus (v. 25). The “until” clause most naturally means that Mary and Joseph enjoyed normal conjugal relations after Jesus’ birth (see comments at 12:46; 13:55). Contrary to McHugh (Mother of Jesus, 204), the imperfect eginōsken (“did not know [her],” GK 1182) does not hint at continued celibacy after Jesus’ birth but stresses the faithfulness of the celibacy until Jesus’ birth.
So the virgin-conceived Immanuel was born. And eight days later, when the time came for him to be circumcised (Lk 2:21), Joseph named him “Jesus.”