The Birth of Jesus Christ
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. 
The Birth of Jesus Christ Commentary
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. 
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?
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
Joseph, Son of David, Accepts Jesus as His Son (1:18–25)
18 The Messiah’s origin14 was like this. His mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together she was found to be pregnant through16 the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband, because he was a righteous man and yet did not want to expose her to scandal, came to the conclusion that he should break the engagement18 privately. 20 But when he had decided on this, suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to accept Mary as your wife; for the child she has conceived is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because it is he who will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this happened to fulfill what had been declared by the Lord through the prophet, who said,
23 “Look, the virgin will become pregnant and will give birth to a son, and they will give him the name Immanuel”—which is translated23 “God with us.”
24 When Joseph got up from sleep, he did just as the angel of the Lord had directed him: he accepted his wife, 25 and he did not have intercourse with her until she had given birth to a son; and he gave him the name Jesus.
The “book of origin” has left us with an unresolved problem. Joseph has been shown to be the “son of David,” the heir to the royal dynasty of Judah, but in v. 16 Matthew has abandoned his regular formula to indicate that Jesus, the son of Joseph’s wife Mary, was not in fact Joseph’s son (and Matthew carefully avoids ever referring to Joseph as Jesus’ “father”). What then is the relevance of this dynastic list to the story of Jesus, son of Mary? These verses will explain, therefore, how Jesus came to be formally adopted and named by Joseph, despite his own natural inclinations, and thus to become officially “son of David;” the angel’s address to Joseph as “son of David” in v. 20 will highlight the issue.
Joseph’s decision is directed by God, through an angelic revelation in a dream. Specific emphasis is placed both in the angel’s message and in the subsequent narrative on Joseph’s role in naming Jesus, which was the responsibility of the legal father and which ensured the official status of the son and heir (cf. Isa 43:1: “I have called you by name; you are mine”). So not only is the name Jesus in itself theologically significant, but also the fact that it is given to him under divine direction, and by whom it is given. It is through this act of Joseph that Jesus also becomes “son of David.”
Joseph is persuaded to take this bold step by the assurance that Mary’s pregnancy is not the result of infidelity but is of divine origin. The tradition of Jesus’ virgin conception, already hinted at in the formulation of v. 16, is thus central to these verses, and is underlined by Matthew’s statement that Joseph had no intercourse with Mary until after Jesus’ birth. Here is the most impressive agreement between the opening chapters of Matthew and those of Luke, despite their almost complete independence in terms of narrative content (on which see above). What Luke achieves by his story of the angelic annunciation to Mary (Luke 1:26–38) Matthew conveys by the angelic announcement to Joseph. Mary’s incredulity in Luke 1:34 is matched here by Joseph’s initial natural assumption as to the source of the pregnancy, and each needs explicit angelic explanation to overcome it. Both evangelists specifically attribute the pregnancy to the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35; Matt 1:18, 21), and both explicitly refer to Mary as “virgin” (Luke 1:34; Matt 1:23 with 1:25).
It is this aspect of the story which prompts Matthew’s first formula-quotation. The passage of Scripture which undergirds this first of the five narrative cameos in 1:18–2:23 is Isa 7:14, with its explicit mention (in Greek) of a virgin becoming pregnant and giving birth. While Matthew presents the quotation as his own editorial comment rather than as part of the angel’s message to Joseph, he expects his readers to incorporate this scriptural authentication for Mary’s unique experience into their understanding of why Joseph changed his mind. The Isaiah quotation underlines the assurance that this is from God.
But Matthew has noticed that Isaiah’s words also include the naming of the child, which is just what Joseph is now being called on to do. Unlike most of Matthew’s formula-quotations, this one sticks closely to the LXX text, but it diverges at one significant point. Whereas the Hebrew probably says “she” (the mother) will give the child his name, and the LXX probably28 says “you” (singular, referring to Ahaz to whom the prophecy is addressed) will do so, Matthew has a generalizing “they,” which leaves the way open for Jesus to be given his name not by Mary but by Joseph. The name given in Isaiah is not of course the name Jesus, but far from being embarrassed by the problem of two different names, Matthew draws the name Immanuel also into his presentation of the theological significance of the coming of the Messiah by adding a literal translation of it as “God with us.” Probably Matthew expected his readers to reflect that the “salvation” which is the explicit meaning of the name Jesus in v. 21 was to be accomplished by the coming of God among his people, but he has not made any such linking of the meanings of the two names explicit.
The phrase “God with us” which thus marks the beginning of Matthew’s presentation of Jesus will have its arresting counterpart at the end of the gospel when Jesus himself declares “I am with you always” with reference not to a continuing life on earth but a spiritual presence (28:20). Cf. also the remarkable words of 18:20, “Where two or three have come together in my name, I am there among them.” At this point it would be possible to read Immanuel only in its probable OT sense as a statement of God’s concern for his people, “God is with us,” but the name as applied to one who has just been declared to owe his origin to the direct work of the Holy Spirit was probably in Matthew’s mind a more direct statement of the presence of God in Jesus himself, so that Jesus’ declaration in 28:20 is only drawing out what has already been true from the time of his birth, that God is present in the person of Jesus. Matthew’s overt interpretation of “Immanuel” thus takes him close to an explicit doctrine of incarnation such as is expressed in John 1:14.
Thus, while these verses do not use the title “Son of God”, Matthew could hardly have recorded both the supernatural conception of Jesus and the scriptural title “God with us” without reflecting on the fact that the Messiah is much more than only a “son of David,” as will later be made explicit in 22:41–45. When we are invited to reflect on God’s calling his “son” out of Egypt in 2:15, and still more when Jesus is explicitly declared to be God’s Son in 3:17, the ground will have been well prepared.
18 The order of the opening words, which is less natural in Greek than in my translation, draws attention again to the title “Messiah” by putting it first. Verse 1 has promised to reveal the “origin” of the Messiah, and the repetition of that word here (see p. 46, n. 14) shows that that promise is still being fulfilled.33 The list of names now requires to be supplemented by a narrative account in order to explain how the identity of Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah can be recognized despite the unusual and potentially self-defeating way the “book of origin” ended in v. 16.
The difference between our modern concept of “engagement” and that of first-century Jews is indicated by the description of Joseph already in v. 19 as Mary’s husband and by the use of the normal word for divorce to describe the ending of the engagement. Though the couple were not yet living together, it was a binding contract entered into before witnesses which could be terminated only by death (which would leave the woman a “widow”) or by divorce as if for a full marriage (m. Ketub. 4:2); sexual infidelity during the engagement would be a basis for such divorce. About a year after the engagement (m. Ketub. 5:2; Ned. 10:5) the woman (then aged normally about thirteen or fourteen) would leave her father’s home and go to live with the husband in a public ceremony (such as is described in 25:1–12), which is here referred to as “coming together” and will be recorded in v. 24.
The role of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ conception (which will be explained in v. 20; as yet Joseph knows nothing of it) reflects the OT concept of the Spirit of God active in the original creation (Gen 1:2; Ps 33:6) and in the giving of life (Ps 104:30; Isa 32:15; Ezek 37:1–14); cf. the possibility considered above that v. 1 is intended to suggest a new creation. The Spirit is also thought of in the OT as having an eschatological role in connection with the coming of the Messiah (Isa 11:2; 42:1; 61:1 etc.), and this theme will be taken up in 3:16–17, but the mention here links the Spirit not just with Jesus’ adult ministry but with his whole earthly life. The delicate way in which both Matthew and Luke express the process of Jesus’ conception contrasts sharply with Greek and Roman stories of gods (often having assumed the form of a male human or even animal) having intercourse with human women, resulting in the birth of demigod heroes like Heracles.
19 That Joseph was “righteous” is sometimes thought to explain his avoidance of a public scandal because he was “merciful” or “considerate,” but the more basic sense of the word is of one who is careful to keep the law. The law as then understood required the termination of the engagement in the case of “adultery;”38 in OT times the penalty for adultery was stoning. Deut 22:13–21 deals specifically with the case of a woman found not to be a virgin at the time of marriage, and 22:23–24 with that of consenting “adultery” on the part of an engaged woman. But by the first century (when Roman rule had abolished Jewish death penalties)40 divorce was the normal course. John 8:5–7, if historical, would then be describing a deliberately extreme response. As a law-abiding man Joseph would be expected to repudiate his errant fiancée publicly in a trial for adultery; for the force of deigmatizō cf. Col 2:15 where Jesus “makes a public example” of the principalities and powers, and for the public humiliation of an adulteress see m. Soṭah 1:4–6. If “righteous” is understood in that sense, therefore, it stands in contrast with rather than as an explanation of his desire to spare her; hence my inclusion of “yet” in the translation above. The resultant dilemma suggests to him the course, still legally correct but also more compassionate, of a “private” annulment of the contract, avoiding a public accusation of adultery and the resultant trial; the Mishnah allows for the divorce of a suspected adulteress before just two witnesses (m. Soṭah 1:1; for the necessity of witnesses to a divorce cf. e.g. m. Giṭ. 9:4, 8), though it is hard to see how this could long be kept secret from a society aware of the original engagement.42
20–21 My translations “came to the conclusion” (v. 19) and “when he had decided on this” reflect Matthew’s aorist tenses, which suggest that before the divine intervention Joseph’s mind was made up. Four times in these chapters we are told of divine communications to Joseph in dreams (cf. 2:13, 19, 22), in all but the last case with an angel as the messenger. It is fanciful to explain this by Matthew’s memory of the famous dreams of another Joseph in Gen 37:5–11, 19–20: the OT Joseph did not receive divine directions (or see angels) in his dreams and Matthew makes no attempt to connect the two Josephs; moreover he attributes comparable dreams also to the magi (2:12) and to Pilate’s wife (27:19). Divine guidance both by dreams and by the appearance of angels are of course a regular feature of OT spirituality, and would need no explanation. The point of their concentration in these chapters is to emphasize the initiative of God in guiding Joseph’s actions through this crucial period.45
The angel’s address to Joseph as “son of David” reminds us what is at stake in the decision Joseph has just reached: the loss of Jesus’ royal pedigree if he is not officially recognized as Joseph’s son. So, despite his previous decision, he is called to take two decisive actions, first to accept Mary as his wife rather than repudiating her and secondly to give her son a name, which will confirm his legal recognition of Jesus as his own son and hence as also a “son of David.”
The second part of the angel’s message (v. 21) corresponds quite closely to the wording of the quotation from Isa 7:14 which will follow in v. 23, though of course with Jesus’ actual name rather than the symbolic name Immanuel. The interpretations given to the two names (“he will save his people from their sins” and “God with us”) invite the reader to reflect on the nature of the Messiah’s mission. On the name Jesus see above on v. 1. The Hebrew Yehôšuaʿ is normally taken to mean “Yahweh is salvation,” so that the interpretation in terms of saving from sin derives from the popular Hebrew understanding of the name; the similarity to the Hebrew verb yôšîaʿ (“he will save”) may have helped with Matthew’s formulation of the meaning of the name in a future verb, “he will save.” But whereas the OT name spoke of God as the savior, Mary’s son is himself to be the agent of salvation; here is scope for profound christological reflection on the part of any of Matthew’s readers who can see behind the common Greek name to its Hebrew origin. “His people” in relation to the mission of a “son of David” must in the first place denote Israel,47 but even if at this stage Matthew’s readers have not yet recognized the universalistic implications of the title “son of Abraham” and of the non-Israelite women in the genealogy they will not have to read far into the book before they become aware that the scope of salvation is being spread more widely. Indeed, one of the key issues which will dominate the final confrontation in Jerusalem, and will be brought to its climax in 28:18–20, will be who are to constitute the continuing people of God and the role of Jesus in bringing into being what he will significantly describe in 16:18 as “my ecclesia.”
This universal scope of the Messiah’s mission is not as yet on the surface, but there is a clear break from popular Jewish expectation in the statement that the salvation Jesus will achieve will be “from their sins.” Several OT eschatological passages speak of the need for sins to be atoned for and forgiven, e.g. Isa 53:4–12; Jer 31:31–34; Ezek 36:25–31. But while the spiritual condition of God’s people was still the concern of at least some contemporary messianic expectation (notably the Pharisaic hope expressed in Pss. Sol. 17:21–46, though there it is intertwined with political restoration), there seems little doubt that the dominant concern in first-century Jewish hope was with their political subjection, with the restoration of the kingdom of David as the messianic goal. The angel’s words thus signal at the start that any political euphoria which may have been evoked by the Davidic and royal theme of the “book of origin” is wide of the mark of what Jesus’ actual mission is to be. His ministry will begin in the context of a call to repentance from sin (3:2, 6; 4:17), and while the focus of that ministry will be on teaching, healing and exorcism, he will also assert his “authority on earth to forgive sins” (9:6). His mission will culminate in his death “as a ransom for many,” (20:28) “for the forgiveness of sins.” (26:28) This son of David will not conform to the priorities of popular messianic expectation.
22 Matthew now introduces the first of his “formula-quotations” (see above, pp. 11–14), which typically take the form of editorial comment on the incident being narrated. Formally, this quotation interrupts the narrative, but its role is in fact central to the pericope, which has been framed so as to demonstrate the fulfillment of the prophecy (note that phrases from Isa 7:14 are echoed in the narrative of vv. 18, 21, 25). The introductory formula in these quotations varies, the common factor (except in 2:5 and 23, see comments there) being the phrase “to fulfill (or “then was fulfilled”) what had been declared through the prophet [sometimes named], who said.” There are two expansions of the basic formula here. “What had been declared” is here (and in 2:15) explained by adding “by the Lord.” The verb-form translated “declared”54 has a solemn, formulaic ring, and is used in the NT only by Matthew: in addition to its repetition ten times in this formula his other three uses of it are all to introduce a biblical quotation or allusion (3:3; 22:31; 24:15); “by the Lord” therefore makes explicit what the verb-form already implies, the authoritative declaration of God in Scripture. The other expansion is the opening phrase “All this happened” (cf. 21:4, “This happened;” in 26:56 the same wording as here introduces a general statement of scriptural fulfillment rather than a specific quotation), and again the language is slightly artificial in that Matthew uses the perfect of ginomai rather than the aorist which he normally uses in narrative. The effect of this addition is to ensure that the reader looks for the fulfillment of Isa 7:14 not only in the virgin conception of Jesus but in the whole complex of events which “have come to pass,” including conception, birth, and especially the naming of the child.
23 A reader familiar with modern study of Isaiah will notice two problems about Matthew’s first formula-quotation. In the first place, while the LXX, which Matthew follows (except for one word) unambiguously refers to “the virgin,” English versions of Isaiah generally translate the Hebrew as “the young woman.” The definite article suggests that a particular woman is in view, but the context does not identify her; interpreters have suggested Ahaz’s wife (note that the prophecy is addressed to the “house of David,” v. 13) or Isaiah’s (in view of the similar symbolic use made of the birth of Isaiah’s son in 8:1–4). But if this is what he meant it is remarkable that Isaiah did not use the normal Hebrew word for a “woman” or “wife,” ʾiššâ, which would be expected of a childbirth within marriage. The word that is actually used is ʿalmâ, which occurs very rarely in the OT. While it is clear from some of those OT contexts that the ʿalmâ is sexually mature, the word is not used elsewhere of a married woman; the person referred to as ʿalmâ in Gen 24:43 has been specifically described as a virgin in v. 16. Isaiah’s choice of this unusual word in connection with childbirth therefore draws attention; it does not explicitly mean “virgin” (the Hebrew for which is betûlâ), but it suggests something other than a normal childbirth within marriage. It was presumably on this basis that LXX translated it by parthenos (“virgin”). Matthew is following the LXX, but the Hebrew underlying it is sufficiently unusual to suggest that it was not an arbitrary translation.
The second problem is that Isaiah’s prophecy, uttered to Ahaz in about the year 735 b.c., is not about an event in the distant future. Its point is to specify the time of the imminent devastation of both Judah’s enemies and Judah herself through the Assyrian invasion: it will be before the son called Immanuel, soon to be born, has grown up (Isa 7:15–17). This raises an issue which we will note several times in Matthew’s use of OT prophecy, that whereas we prefer to think of a single specific fulfillment of a prophet’s prediction, Matthew’s typological interest leads him rather to find patterns which will recur repeatedly throughout God’s dealings with his people. In this case, he has good warrant for taking the prophecy concerning Immanuel as having a relevance beyond its undoubted immediate aim, for the name Immanuel will occur again in Isa 8:8 as that of the one to whom the land of Judah belongs, and its meaning will be developed in 8:10, “for God is with us.” Moreover, the prophecy in 7:14 of the birth to the “house of David” (Isa 7:13) of a child with so extraordinary an honorific title prepares us for the even more remarkable description in 9:6–7 of a child who is to be born “for us,” and whose multiple and still more extravagant title marks him out not only as the Messiah of the line of David but also as “Mighty God, Everlasting Father.” The theme will be taken up again in 11:1–5 with the prophecy of the spiritually-endowed “shoot from the stump of Jesse.” These last two passages would have been recognized then, as they still are today, as messianic prophecies, and it seems likely that Isaiah’s thought has moved progressively from the virgin’s child, “God with us,” to whom the land of Judah belongs, to these fuller expressions of the Davidic hope. If then Isa 7:14 is taken as the opening of what will be the developing theme of a wonder-child throughout Isaiah 7–11, it can with good reason be suggested that it points beyond the immediate political crisis of the eighth century b.c., not only in Matthew’s typological scheme but also in Isaiah’s intention.
To focus on these issues raised by modern scholarship is, however, to be distracted from the purpose of Matthew in including this quotation. There are three elements in this Isaiah text which would have attracted Matthew’s attention, two with regard to his immediate narrative context (a child born to a virgin mother, and the naming of the child) and one in relation to his underlying christology, the title “God with us.” His one deviation from the LXX is in the plural subject of the verb, “they will call.” In his immediate narrative context it will be Joseph who will give the child his name (which neither the Hebrew “she will call” nor the LXX “you will call” would have allowed), but that name will be Jesus, not Immanuel. Matthew’s plural may therefore be looking ahead to what “people” (especially those whom he will “save from their sins,” v. 21) will eventually learn to say about Jesus, that in him God is with us. We have no indication that Matthew’s plural verb came from any source other than his own creative interpretation of the text.67 For the theological significance of the title Immanuel see introductory comments above.
24–25 Matthew’s editorial comment in vv. 22–23 has interrupted the flow of the narrative which now resumes from the end of v. 21. Joseph’s obedient response to the angel’s words is indicated by the repetition of the same words to describe the first and third of his actions, accepting his wife and giving his son the name Jesus. But between these two actions, which together completed the legal “adoption” of Jesus as Joseph’s son, Matthew mentions a third which was not explicit in the angel’s instructions: “he did not have intercourse with her until she had given birth.” For Joseph to “accept” his wife required the public completion of the marriage by taking Mary to his own house (the “coming together” of v. 18), which would normally have been the point at which sexual relations began. Matthew does not explain Joseph’s abstinence, but it is not hard to understand it in the light of the assurance that Mary was pregnant “through the Holy Spirit.” If Matthew has an apologetic reason for inserting this statement, it is presumably to take away any doubt as to the supernatural origin of Mary’s child. There is nothing in his text to suggest that he subscribed to the later idea of Mary’s “perpetual virginity,” and indeed the “until” most naturally indicates that after Jesus was born normal marital relations began (as indeed the straight-forward sense of Jesus having “brothers and sisters” requires, 13:55–56; cf. Luke 2:7, “her first-born son”).
The pericope concludes triumphantly with the naming of Jesus. Verse 21 has explained the theological significance of the name, and the whole chapter so far has set up the problem of legal parentage to which this is the essential answer. Jesus of Nazareth is now securely adopted as “son of David.”
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.