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.

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.

Jesus’ family tree. Matthew 1:1-17

I’m excited today because I get to give a whole sermon on a Scriptural genealogy! Now, of course, I’m aware that this may have the exact opposite effect on you, as you think, ‘What could be more boring?’ Right? But it’s my hope that today, as we look at Jesus’ family tree, you will find this interesting. And even more so that it will build up your faith.

Overview of Matthew 1:1-17

If you will look at your handout: Matthew 1 Genealogy let me point out a few things –

1. The title of the section is in v. 1, “The record of the genealogy of Jesus.”

2. This section has two bookends (an inclusion with a chiastic structure) made up of the names – Abraham, David and the Messiah in 1 and v. 17. These bookends mark this off as a distinct section from the rest of chapter one. This was a common writing technique in that day.

3. Notice that it’s divided into 3 sets of 14 generations. As v. 17 points out, “So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah fourteen generations.”

There are some additional notes on the handout for you to look at, if you’re interested.

A word about ancient genealogies

They can be quite different than modern ones. And I share this with you because if you start really digging in and taking a close look you might ask, ‘Well, what about this?’ or ‘What about that?’

First of all, there isn’t the same kind of focus on technical accuracy as we have today in genealogies. Let me give you two examples. 1) Names can be left out. For instance in the second section, v. 8 three kings are left out. Now these kings may have been left out for a reason (because they were under a curse?). But the point is they aren’t listed.

Now, leaving out names was not uncommon in ancient Jewish genealogies, so it’s not a big deal. Matthew may well be working with some common assumptions of the time about who should, and who shouldn’t be listed. And given these common assumptions he points out the symbolism of 3 sets of 14’s.

2) Another example of less technical accuracy is the alternate names that show up at points – Asaph for Asa, Amos for Amon, the former being alternate spellings for the latter.

Second, with ancient genealogies, you can be creative to make a point; to highlight certain people or things. For instance, the three time periods that are delineated highlight Abraham, David and the time of exile. Others could have been highlighted. And as we will see in a moment, this genealogy is set up to highlight Jesus’ connection with King David. Also, as we will see in a bit, Matthew adds in several women, which is quite unusual. But they are there for a reason, to make a point.

What do we learn from Jesus’ family tree?

1. Jesus is a descendant of king David or “the son of David” as v. 1 says. This is a royal genealogy. It traces Jesus’ lineage through Joseph to the royal line of David through Solomon. The point is that Jesus, by being adopted by Joseph, is a descendant of David, and is thus qualified to be the Messiah and to sit on David’s throne.

Now there are other things going on in this genealogy, as we will see. For instance, there is also a concern with Jesus’ connection to Abraham. But clearly the main focus in on David.

  • He’s the only person in a list with many kings, who is given the title – “the king” – v. 6
  • David’s name shows up five times in this genealogy – v. 1, v. 6, v. 17
  • For this next point a little background. In alphabets of languages that don’t use numerals, the letters become numbers. This was the case with Hebrew. This means that you can take a word and count up the numerical value of it letters, and that is the number of the word. And this number can be used for symbolic purposes. Who can tell me the most famous example of this? Revelation 13:18 and the number “666.” I said all this to say that David’s name in Hebrew has 3 letters, which equal the number 14. (d = 4; w = 6; d = 4). This is certainly a part of the structure of this genealogy – 3 parts with 14 in each part. The whole genealogy, as it is put together here reflects David’s name.
  • Also, David’s name is found in the 14th spot. (For this emphasis on David – Davies & Allison, Matthew, v. 1, p. 163-165)

In all of these ways David is highlighted among Jesus’ ancestors to show that Jesus has the credentials to be the Messiah and to sit on David’s throne.

2. A virginal conception isn’t that strange. This genealogy does teach that Mary was a virgin when she conceived. Throughout, the pattern is X is the father of Y. But when it comes to Jesus it reads, “Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born” – v. 16. The language has to change to account for this different kind of event.

Now the circumstances of Jesus’ birth could certainly seem scandalous. A young woman who is pregnant, while not yet with her husband. And, in fact, the only reason she isn’t divorced as an adulteress is that an angel told Joseph not to do this. But this genealogy points out that there have been several irregular unions between men and women that seemed scandalous to outsiders, which were used by God in the royal lineage. (Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, p. 73)

The addition of the following women makes this point:

  • Tamar – v. 3. She bore a child to Judah, under highly scandalous circumstances. But she is in the chosen line.
  • Rahab – v. 5. She was a Gentile and a prostitute at one time, but she is in the kingly line of Israel.
  • Ruth – v. 5. She was a Moabite who was not to be a part of Israel up to the tenth generation (Deuteronomy 23:3). But she was the mother of David’s grandfather.
  • “The wife of Uriah” or Bathsheba – v. 6. She committed adultery with David, but Solomon came from this union.

Mary is the other woman in this genealogy. We know that many at the time and afterward slandered her by saying that she was involved in sexual immorality (e.g. John 8:41). And so the point is that a virginal conception may seem scandalous, but it has been used by God.

3. Jesus fulfills God’s promises to his people. The way the genealogy is set up in three sections, highlights three periods of time, all of which have key promises for the future of the people of God, which Jesus came to fulfill.

From the time of Abraham: Genesis 12:2-3 – God said, “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. . . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 17:19 – God said, “Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” Jesus is the fulfillment of these promises. He is the offspring of Abraham and through him God’s blessings are received.

From the time of David: 2 Samuel 7:12-13 – The Lord said, “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. . . . I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” This promise is applied to the Messiah in the prophets. Isaiah 11:1 – “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” Jeremiah 23:5 – “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” Jesus is the fulfillment of these promises. He is the promised Messiah who will reign.

From the time of the exile: Ezekiel 36:26-27 – the Lord promises that after this time – “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Jeremiah 31:31-34 – “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. . . . I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Jesus is the fulfillment of these promises. He has brought true salvation – forgiveness of our sins, the giving of the Holy Spirit and the provision of a new heart for everyone.

As Paul says, “all the promises of God find their ‘Yes’ in Jesus Christ” – 2 Corinthians 1:20. He comes at the end of this lineage to bring to fulfillment all that God has promised before.

4. Finally, we learn that God is faithful through the ages. A lot of time is covered in these generations. And all this time God was working toward his own end, the coming of Jesus. Through good times – David, Abraham,  and very bad times – wicked kings and exile, God has been working to bring about his plans and purposes.

And a God who can do this can certainly be faithful to us in our lives – in our good times and in our bad times. And God can bring about his purpose for our lives as well.

Christmas Joy. Luke 2:10-11

I want to share with you briefly on Joy and Christmas-time. Joy is certainly central to the message the angel spoke to the Shepherds in the Christmas story.  Luke 2:10  says, “And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.’”

Christmas is a time of joy, right? Time off work; enjoying family; giving gifts; special meals; special events with friends; sentimental associations from childhood and a time to set aside one’s problems for a while. All we need to do is hear the Christmas music and  see the decorations to be joyful and happy.

Yet, as you know, for some, Christmas can be a time of real sadness. If many have time off work, some don’t have a job or are working several jobs with no time off. If many enjoy family, some have family brokenness or even no family. If many give and receive gifts, some don’t have the money to do this. If many have special meals, some can’t afford this either. If many go to special events with friends, some don’t have friends to go out with. If many have sentimental remembrances, some didn’t have a good childhood and so it can bring back bad memories. If many are able to set aside their problems – some are reminded of specific tragedies that have happened at this time of year, or losses from the past year.

So for one or more of these reasons, simply to hear the music and to see the decorations brings sadness or even depression. You can’t seem to enter in and be happy, and it makes you sadder when you see others experiencing joy, when you can’t.

So does this mean that we shouldn’t talk about Christmas joy since we might make someone feel worse? No. We simply need to remember again why we have joy at Christmas. And we learn this from the angel who spoke to the Shepherds in Luke 2:11 – “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Notice, the angel said nothing about time off work; family; gift giving; meals; special events with friends; sentimental associations from childhood; or a special time to set aside problems for a while. This is the cultural part of Christmas; the human traditions that have accumulated around our celebration of Christmas.

Think of Mary and Joseph. They were obeying an imperial edict to be registered in a census. I’m sure they weren’t excited about having to do this at the very time when Mary was due to give birth. I don’t think it was fun to have to put Jesus in an animal feed-trough because there wasn’t enough room for them in a home or an inn. They certainly weren’t enjoying what we associate with celebrating Christmas.

Think of the Shepherds as well. They took a brief break from their work to go see the baby and then went back. They had none of the trappings of our cultural traditions.

The angel said we can have joy because of something else. We have to keep vs. 10 and 11 together. v. 10 speaks of “good news of a great joy.” v. 11 tells us why – “for unto you is born . . . a Savior”

Our Messiah and Lord has come someone who can save us. Someone who can help us in our difficulties, provide for our needs, and give us the promise of a better future. And this is what gives us both hope and joy.

This is a message precisely for those who are sad and who don’t have what they want at this time of year. And it’s for all of us who have problems. You don’t need a savior if you have nothing to be saved from, right?

The true meaning of Christmas can give us all joy precisely because we do have problems, pain and brokenness.

Jesus is the savior. He has come. And he can help us. And this is what we celebrate. So let’s celebrate with vigor and great joy! A joy that cannot be taken away no matter what our circumstances are.

How to respond to Jesus’ birth: The wise men. Matthew 2:1-11

As we celebrate advent this year we are looking at right and wrong responses to the birth of Jesus.

Wrong responses have to do with how we can get off track and distracted by other things, like getting caught up in consumerism – buying things, just to buy things. Because of the commercialization of Christmas, we now buy and give gifts that others don’t need and receive the same from them.

We can also be distracted by  cultural Christmas – various events, time with family and friends, giving gifts, meals. Or by being so stressed out from the busyness of the season   that we never quite get to celebrating the birth of Jesus. These are or can be wrong responses to the birth of Jesus.

Last time we looked at some right responses from the example of the shepherds in Luke 2. And today we look at some right responses from the example of the wise men.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 2:1-11. Please listen as I read this familiar story which takes place after the birth of Jesus.

2:1Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'” 7Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”

9After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

By way of introduction let me share –

A few notes on this story

 It’s an interesting story, and it raises some questions. 1. Who are these “wise men”? They were most likely from Babylon or Persia. They would have been court figures, perhaps from a priestly class, who practiced a mixture of astronomy and astrology. They were considered to be very learned.

There was a certain mystique in the Roman world about wise men from the east. And there were various stories of them coming to speak of a new king.

 2. What’s with the star? In v. 2 the wise men said, “we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” This seems straight forward enough, we have astrologers/ astronomers and then there’s a star. And there have been attempts to identify this star with various astronomical phenomena of the time.

But notice v. 9 – “the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.” This was no ordinary star. It actually led them just five miles south to Bethlehem and then it stayed right over one specific house.

The answer, I think, comes from an understanding that stars and angels are sometimes connected in Scripture. So it is best to say that the star was an angel leading the wise men.

 This star is scripturally connected to Numbers 24:17 which was seen as a Messianic prediction among many Jews. It says, “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”

  • Balaam who predicted this was a Gentile prophet from the time of Moses (although he is seen as a false prophet in other places, here it says, “The Spirit of God came upon him.”)
  • The wise men, then, are his successors. Gentile magi acknowledging the fulfillment of this prophecy.

 3. What’s with the gifts? They gave of their treasures gold, frankincense and myrrh. The last two are both fragrant spices, or perfumes made from different kinds of resin. These are gifts appropriate for royalty; in this case the king of Israel.

Along these lines no one knows how many wise men there were. Just because three gifts are mentioned doesn’t mean there were three of them. Scripture is silent on this.  

4. When did the wise men actually come? The answer is a year or two after Jesus’ birth. This comes out in v. 7 – “Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.” And then v. 16 – “Herod massacred the children – who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”

To get more specific Jesus was born “in the days of Herod” (Matthew 2:1) and Herod died in 4 BC. So Jesus had to be born before 4 BC. So yes, our current calendars are wrong, that say Jesus was born in AD 1. And the whole BC AD system is off by several years.

Given the wise men came up to two years later, and Herod was still alive, this pushes the date back two years. Jesus was most likely born in 6 BC. So the wise men came between 5-4 BC, after Joseph and Mary had a house and were staying in it.

Now let’s look at –

The response of the wise men

 1. They sought Jesus out. v 1-2 – “Wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?’”

In the same way we need to seek out Jesus this advent season. In the midst of many distractions: busyness, cultural Christmas, the stress of making sure the Christmas dinner is just right, and everyone has just the right gift – we need to ask, “where is he?”

The message this morning is this – make sure you seek Jesus out this advent. The wise men went to great effort and it might take some effort on our part as well. Focus on Jesus; give him your attention. It is, after all his birthday.

2. They rejoiced. v. 10 – “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

As we think of Jesus’ birth this year we should rejoice exceedingly with great joy. I’m not talking about the joy we have when we see our family or experience familiar Christmas traditions.This is cultural Christmas. Now, this is all fine, but whether you have this or not the point of Christmas is not this.

The point of Christmas is to rejoice in the coming of Jesus, the fulfillment of God’s promises for our salvation and peace. Rejoice in him this Christmas season.

3. They honored Jesus. v. 2 – “we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” v. 11 – “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.”

 The word “worship” here can mean worship of God, or the honor one gives to a king or another important person. And it was customary to bow or kneel before a king. Here they are honoring Jesus as the king of Israel.

But for us, who know the fullness of Jesus’ identity we should honor Jesus with the worship due to the Son of God. We give to Jesus ourselves and all that we have. These are our gifts and we are to lay them before him.

We do this as we gather on Sunday mornings, in our own personal prayer times, and by how we live our lives, honoring him as our Lord and King – the promised Messiah.