We begin our look at what the New Testament says about the birth and incarnation of Jesus with the ‘other’ Christmas story. I say other, because the birth story that is traditionally read on Christmas is the one found in the Gospel of Luke. The result is that when we think of Jesus’ birth, that’s the story we usually of – Gabriel’s message to Mary, the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the inn and stable, the angels and shepherds. But though there are a number of essential points in common between the two Gospels (something we’ll look at in week 3), Matthew’s story, as told in the first two chapters of the Gospel, is quite distinct from the one told in Luke.
Read Matthew 1:1-25. What parts of the familiar Christmas story are there? What is missing? Are there details that aren’t in Luke’s story?
A Brief Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew
- Matthew was the favourite gospel of the early church who found it most useful for teaching new Christians. This is why it is placed first.
- Matthew is a gospel written by a Jewish Christian to a Jewish audience.
- Jesus is the Messiah, the long-promised King of from the house of David.
- Matthew also presents Jesus as the promised Prophet like Moses to whom Israel must listen.
- The Gospel was probably completed between 70 and 80AD by Jewish members of the Jerusalem Church who fled to Galilee or Syria after the destruction of the city and Temple by the Romans.
- Matthew, together with Mark and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels (lit. to be read together) All three follow the same basic narrative, and include a large number of stories and teaching that are identical or quite similar.
The Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah (Matthew 1:1-17)
If you’re like most people, the various genealogies and name lists in the Bible probably make your eyes glaze over. However, genealogies were very important to ancient cultures because they help tell the big story of a people. The genealogy that opens the Gospel of Matthew is no different. For the reader who knows the stories behind names listed, the genealogy shows who Jesus fits into the story of the people of Israel and God’s great plan of redemption that begins with the first person in the list: Abraham.
Read Genesis 12:1-9. This is one of the most important passages in the Old Testament. What does the call of Abraham (here called by his original name of Abram) say about God’s purpose of calling and creating a special people who would become known as Israel? (Hint: Focus on vs.1-3)
The other key name on the list is David. Like his ancestor Abraham, God made a special promise or contract with David called a covenant. This covenant expressed the role of the King for the people of Israel and how the King would help Israel fulfill its mission to be God’s chosen people.
Read Psalm 89:18-37 and Psalm 72. What do these Psalms say about God’s promise to David, and the special role Israel’s King was to play in the world?
Aside from these two big names, notice one other thing about Jesus’ family tree here in Matthew. Unlike most other genealogies from the ancient world it includes a number of women. Each of these women has her own story, and each story contains some unexpected turns and more than a little scandal.
Read the stories of Tamar (Genesis 38); Rahab (Joshua 6); Ruth (Book of Ruth); and Bathsheba (2 Samuel: 11&12). If you’re pressed for time just read Tamar’s story. What is Matthew doing by highlighting these stories of unorthodox women, and unusual circumstances around the bith of children? What might he be saying about Jesus’ birth?
The Birth of Jesus the Messiah (Matthew 1:18-25)
A moment ago I asked you to think about the distinctions between Matthew’s story and the one found in Luke. Now I’ll list the big ones that always stand out for me: The story is entirely from Joseph’s perspective (we hear nothing from Mary); there is no Roman census or journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem; there is no stable and no angels or shepherds. All we have is Joseph’s dream, his response, and a single sentence about Jesus’ birth. While there are the Magi or Wisemen (who are only in Matthew), they don’t appear until after Jesus is born in chapter 2.
Joseph and a Different Kind of Righteousness
Yet for all it’s brevity, there is a simple power to Matthew’s birth story. Joseph, though not Jesus’ biological father, plays an essential role in protecting Mary and Jesus and embodies the distinct kind of righteousness that Jesus will preach throughout his ministry: “Mary’s husband Joseph was a righteous man…” (Matthew 1:19)
Righteousness in the Biblical sense means being in right relationship with God and with other people. This means it covers what we would call justice. Among many of the religious leaders around the time of Jesus, the focus was on narrowly keeping the requirements of God’s Law as given to Moses and particularly on avoiding sin and impurity. Yet there was a broader definition that went back to the prophets of Israel: “For I desire mercy and love, not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings;” (Hosea 6:6) “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
Joseph embodies this merciful, loving form of justice in how he responds to the news of Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. By custom he could have had Mary stoned to death for adultery, or at least shamed in front of the whole village – instead he chooses mercy: “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”
He goes further than this when he receives a dream assuring him that Mary has not committed adultery, but rather “the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:20) Though this choice will bring him shame and likely cost him his reputation as a righteous man (by marrying a woman that many will believe cheated on him), he trusts God and does what is right in God’s eyes. In doing so he ensures Mary’s well-being, ensures Jesus has a human father, and brings Jesus into the line of King David by claiming him as his own son.
Question: So often today the only kind of righteous we see is self-righteousness.What do you think about what I’ve just said about the righteousness of Joseph and the full meaning of righteousness in the Bible? Is this a kind of righteousness that is appealing to you, something to strive for?
The Name of Jesus
“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:22) Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Yehoshua or Joshua, and means ‘the LORD saves.’ Jesus or Joshua was a popular name for Jewish boys, that looked back to the Joshua who succeeded Moses and led Israel into the promised land. With this in mind we see that Matthew is telling us that Jesus saves us from from more than just the particular sins of individuals. Saviour had the meaning of ‘Liberator’ at that time, and we should understand Jesus as the one who rescues people from the slavery of sin and brings them into the promised land of God’s Kingdom.
The Prophecy of Isaiah and the Virgin Birth
Matthew gives Jesus another important name that comes from the book of Isaiah. “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) The original context of this prophecy was a King of Judah who was afraid that his nation would be wiped out by their neighbours. The child was a sign that God ‘was with with his people’ to rescue them. But in light of what Matthew has told us about Jesus’ unique conception (unlike any that appears elsewhere in the Bible) Emmanuel takes on a deeper meaning. Jesus is “God with us” in a way the first child covered by the prophecy was not, God truly present in a human being. Matthew doesn’t come out and say this directly, but it will become apparent with all that Jesus says, does and experiences in his life and ministry.
Two quick notes before we finish this chapter. Before the Gospel of Matthew, no one understood Isaiah 7:14 as being about the Messiah. While there are many passages in the Old Testament and especially in the book of Isaiah that were seen as pointing to the Messiah, this isn’t one of them. No one was expecting a virgin birth. This means Matthew didn’t make up the virgin birth to fit prophecy – he went looking for a prophecy that would explain and make sense of the virgin birth. He found it here in Isaiah 7:14.
The other thing to observe is the last two verses of the chapter: “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:24-25) While the belief that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth developed quite early, it is not solidly based on Scripture. A plain reading of vs. 25 would suggest that Mary and Joseph had normal marital relations after Jesus’ birth, which would make Jesus the oldest in the family and his siblings (his brothers James, Joseph, Jude and Simon, and sisters who are not named) the children of Joseph and Mary. In other words, Jesus grew up in a normal Jewish family – likely one where only his mother and father knew the unusual circumstances of his conception.