JESUS BORN TO THE VIRGIN MARY
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.
Having demonstrated Joseph’s lineal descent through King David back to Abraham, Matthew now sets down the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. To begin with, Matthew explains that Joseph was espoused (or betrothed) to Mary. Espousal was a solemn commitment to marry at a later date, and this commitment involved a much greater obligation to marry than modern engagement does. Indeed, betrothal was a legally binding arrangement, and an espoused person could be released from his or her commitment only by death or by means of formal divorce proceedings. Again, unfaithfulness during betrothal was considered tantamount to adultery and grounds for a writ of divorce.
Thus, Matthew indicates that Joseph and Mary had been formerly pledged to future married life together. However, Matthew emphasises that during their espousals, the partners did not engage in sexual relations. Indeed, failure to observe complete sexual chastity prior to marriage was considered disgraceful at this time and for many centuries subsequently.
Matthew now declares that Mary found herself pregnant—although not by Joseph or by any other man. To this end, Matthew adds that Mary was ‘found to be with child from the Holy Spirit’ (v.18b ESV).
Clearly, Matthew did not expect his sceptical Jewish readers or anyone else to believe that Mary had not engaged in sexual relations with Joseph, or with some other man. However, it was essential that these same readers understand and believe that the Sovereign Lord God is not bound to human means or to operate exclusively by means of natural or biological processes. As the One who created man from the dust of the ground, the Lord is perfectly free to create life in whatever manner he so pleases. In this instance, it pleased the Lord God to choose the virgin Mary—the handmaid of the Lord—to bear his own Son. However, since this was the Holy One of God, who was to become the incarnate Son of God, then Jesus had to be conceived without sin and without the sinful nature. Yet, he had to be born as a normal human being.
This could be accomplished only if the Child was conceived directly; i.e., without involving the natural processes of procreation. This was not because procreation was in any way sinful, but rather because Adam’s sinful nature was conveyed to all his descendants through procreation. Thus, Jesus had to be conceived without inheriting Adam’s sinful nature so that he could remain the holy sinless Son of God.
Thus, when Jesus was conceived in the virgin Mary, the conception was initiated by the direct miraculous intervention of God the Holy Spirit. For this reason, the child that was to be born to Mary would be called, ‘holy’, ‘the Son of God’.
Mary had been made aware of the fact that she would conceive a child by means of the Holy Spirit. According to Luke’s account, the angel Gabriel had appeared to her earlier, and had given her this magnificent news:
Luke 1:26-38 ESV
(26) In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, (27) to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.
(28) And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favoured one, the Lord is with you!”
(29) But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.
(30) And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. (31) And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. (32) He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, (33) and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
(34) And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
(35) And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. (36) And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. (37) For nothing will be impossible with God.”
(38) And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
The Virgin Birth is an essential element of Christian doctrine. It is not possible to reject the Virgin Birth (or, rather, the virginal conception) of the Lord Jesus without also rejecting his holy, sinless nature. And if the Lord Jesus was not the incarnate sinless Son of God, then he could never have become the Saviour of sinful men and women. For God required a perfect, holy, sinless or unblemished sacrifice to make atonement for sin. He required that the blood of that perfect sacrifice be shed; for without the shedding of blood is no remission of sin. (Heb. 9:22)
And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
Somewhat understandably, Joseph was intensely distraught when he found that Mary was expecting a child. Joseph knew that this was not his child. Therefore, he assumed that Mary must have been unfaithful to him, conceiving the child by some other man. Nevertheless, Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man. He did not want to expose Mary to open shame and disgrace by renouncing her publicly as he could have done, if indeed Mary had been guilty of immorality as Joseph had supposed. Thus, he resolved to put her away (i.e., formally to divorce her). By doing so discretely, this would minimise the impact of her supposed unfaithfulness and shame on other people. As we have remarked already (and unlike engagement), betrothal or espousals was a legally binding arrangement, and could be set aside only by formal divorce proceedings.
Joseph, however, had been greatly mistaken in his assumption. Like many people today, he had assumed that no child could be conceived by any woman except through ordinary reproductive processes. Even righteous Joseph had not considered the power of the Lord to intervene in Mary’s life and to act above and beyond the realm of nature.
Yet, God was not about to let Joseph proceed with his plans to put Mary away:
AN ANGEL APPEARS TO JOSEPH
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.
In great distress, Joseph had been mulling over these events, and had been anguishing over the best course of action. Ultimately, he had decided on divorce, but discretely to protect Mary. As he considered how to proceed with this plan, Joseph fell asleep. While he slept, an angel of the Lord appeared to him.
The angel Gabriel had appeared earlier to Mary, telling her that she would bear a child by means of the Holy Spirit. It is therefore possible that it is Gabriel who now appears to Joseph. (Cf. Luke 1:26)
Firstly, the angel of the Lord addresses Joseph as ‘son of David’. Thereby, the angel of God is placing on record that Joseph is a legitimate descendant of the royal line of David; and, in turn, a descendant of Abraham the patriarch. Secondly, the angel reassures Joseph, assuages his misgivings, and gives him cause to reverse his intended plans. Rather than encouraging Joseph to put away his betrothed, the angel tells him not to fear to take her formally as his wife: That is, he was to continue with his original plan and purpose to marry Mary when the period of espousals had expired. In the meantime, Joseph was to consider Mary as his wife. (In the East, it was customary to consider a betrothed virgin as a wife even although the couple were not yet married. The parties continued to live separately, however, and conjugal union did not occur until after they had been formally united in marriage and had completed the wedding ceremonies.)
At this stage, Joseph must still have entertained many doubts and misgivings. He was being told to marry Mary in due course, even although she was carrying a child whom he had not fathered.
Then, the angel of the Lord explains that the Child conceived by Mary had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. In other words, this had been a miraculous conception originating from a divine source: i.e., the almighty power of God the Holy Spirit operating directly on the virgin’s body and initiating miraculously the processes of conception.
Joseph must have been utterly amazed at this announcement. Nevertheless, he believed what the angelic messenger had told him. Now, he knew in his heart that his beloved Mary had not at any time proved unfaithful to him. Furthermore, he would be able to share these wonderful things openly with Mary, since Gabriel had made them known to her already. Presumably, she had not mentioned them to Joseph earlier because she was scarcely able to believe the truth of such a profound and far-reaching announcement until she knew that she was carrying the Child promised by God through his angel.
(To be continued)
[Excerpt from Expository Notes: Gospel of Matthew (chapter 1 verses 18-20). To read or download the full version of these Notes, click on the NT Commentaries menu tab above.]Follow @gordon_lyons