Jesus’ birth and name. Matthew 1:18-25

Last week we looked at Jesus’ family tree in Matthew 1. There are a number of interesting things about that genealogy, which I tried to point out. But the main point is certainly that Jesus is a descendant of David who is qualified to be the Messiah and to sit on David’s throne.

Handout – After the genealogy there are five stories which have to do with Jesus’ birth and childhood. As we will see, each one has a dream and an Old Testament scripture connected to Jesus. And also, as we will see, each story presents a glimpse into Jesus’ future. I want us to go through these stories and see what we can learn about Jesus.

We begin today with –

The story of Jesus’ birth and name

– found in Matthew 1:18-25. This story opens with a difficult situation.

v. 18 – “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah 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.”

First, note the phrase, “betrothed to Joseph, before they came together.” This reflects the Jewish pattern of marriage at this time, which had two stages. First, you make a public commitment to each other before witnesses. You are legally married at this point. And if you are unfaithful it is adultery, and to get out of it requires divorce. Stage two is when you actually move in together and consummate the marriage, which could be a year or so after the first stage.

So they have gone through stage one, but not stage two, which is the problem. Because “she was found to be with child,” which should not have happened.

The phrase, “from the Holy Spirit” is Matthew’s own comment. Joseph doesn’t know this yet.

v. 19 – “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”

He was just, or righteous in that he abided by the Law of Moses with regard to “the evil” of adultery – Deuteronomy 22:23-27. These verses deal specifically with a woman who is betrothed, but unfaithful. According to the Law the adulterer is to be killed. Although this was probably not enforced at this time, such an evil is still not to be tolerated. Hence his desire for divorce (apart from any personal feelings of betrayal).

But he also didn’t want to put her on public trial. So he resolved to proceed with a quieter form of divorce, with only two or three witnesses to spare her shame.

A dream from God.

v. 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.’”

As with the Old Testament Joseph, our Joseph will hear from God often in the form of dreams in Matthew 1-2. [There are other parallels: Both are concerned with sexual purity,  both make a trip to Egypt which saves Israel and both have a father named Jacob.]

In this one, God tells Joseph, instead of divorce, he is to stay with Mary. The phrase, “take Mary as your wife” can also be translated, “take Mary your wife home.” Either way, it means that he is to proceed to the second stage of the marriage relationship – although as we see in v. 25 without sex.

Why should he keep Mary? Because she has not been unfaithful. Rather the child is “from the Holy Spirit.” This is the second time this phrase is used of Jesus’ conception.

Just a note here: This idea of a virginal conception is different from anything else attested in human history (including stories of the gods and the like). For there is no male involved in the conception of Jesus and no sexual activity; not even a sperm donor. What’s claimed here is pure miracle. The Spirit, the creative power of God, uses an ovum from Mary and produces a child.

The angel goes on in

v. 21 – “’She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’”

The name “Jesus” or Yeshua, is a shortened form of Joshua. According to popular etymology it means – Yahweh is salvation. The angel gives the reasoning: call him Jesus, Yahweh is salvation, “for he will save his people from their sins.” So the name is fitting, given what he will do.

Next, Matthew shares a prophetic Scripture connected to Jesus’ birth.

vs. 22-23 – “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).”

The verse that is quoted is Isaiah 7:14 (LXX). In its original context this was a promise to King Ahaz of Judah. He was threatened with overthrow by Northern Israel and Syria, who planned to set aside the Davidic line and install a puppet ruler (Isaiah 7:4-6).

But the prophet tells Ahaz that he would have a son, born to a young woman. And that during the boy’s infancy, the current threat against Judah and the house of David would be overcome.

The original fulfillment of this was the birth of Hezekiah, as well as the preservation of David’s royal line in him, and the defeat of Ahaz’s enemies. All of which took place.

For several reasons, however, this passage was seen to go beyond this immediate fulfillment:

1.  Hezekiah was a son of David and a good king, and as such he foreshadowed the Messiah. That is, parts of his life can point to what will happen with the Messiah. In this case his birth.

2.  The name “God with us” points to something beyond just Hezekiah and his birth; something more substantial.

3.  This part of Isaiah 2-11 speaks of the coming of what we would call the kingdom of God, which didn’t happen in Hezekiah’s time. (Hagner, Matthew, p. 20 for #2 and #3.).

So, like so many others, and in accord with Jewish practice, this passage is seen to have a deeper and fuller meaning. It has another layer to it. And as Matthew shows us, this points to Jesus.

  • Hezekiah was born to a young woman. But Jesus is born to a virgin – a heightened fulfillment.
  • Hezekiah was a son of David. But Jesus is more. He is the Son of David and the Messiah.
  • Hezekiah’s birth was a sign that God remembered his promise and gave David a son to rule in Judah. Jesus’ birth is a sign that God remembered his promise and gave David a son to rule the world.
  • Hezekiah’s birth and the saving of Judah was a sign that God was with Judah. Jesus’ birth and the salvation he brings to the world is a sign that God is with us; that the kingdom of God has truly come.

So Jesus is the truest fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14.

The story ends with Joseph’s obedience.

vs. 24-25 – “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”

Joseph is immediately obedient to what he received in the dream. He took Mary into his home and he named the baby, Jesus.

This is really important because in Judaism at this time, someone’s son had less to do with biology, than with the fact that you claim the child as your own. And this is what Joseph does here. He legally adopts him by naming him. And so Jesus is given Joseph’s royal lineage, all the way back to king David.

As I said at the beginning, this story gives –

A picture of Jesus’ future

In this story it has to do with the circumstances of his birth, that is, the contrast between the appearance and the reality of his birth.

By appearance there’s a problem. In fact a scandal. Jesus looks as if he’s an illegitimate child. It looks like his mother was unfaithful. And this carried much social stigma in that day, and was a source of scorn and rejection.

An example of this can be found in John 8:41. In the midst of a heated argument with the Pharisees, they say to Jesus, “We were not born of sexual immorality.” The circumstances of his birth are thrown in his face as a way of dismissing him. And this kind of response and rejection continued among later non-believing Jews and Gentiles as well, for centuries.

So in this story we see a picture of his future – he will be despised and rejected for the circumstances of his birth.

But the reality is that Jesus is, in fact, the promised Messiah. What looks like scandal is just the opposite. He is born of a virgin, the true fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14. He is conceived “from the Holy Spirit.” Instead of a cause of rejection, the circumstances of his birth should show us that he is the Messiah, who has come to save us from our sins and to show that God is with us.