THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
The Announcement of Jesus’ Birth
Luke 1:26-38; Matt. 1:18-25
Sandwiched between the birth stories of John the Baptist is the episode of the announcement of Jesus’ birth. Why does Luke spend so much time on these announcement stories? Why did he just not relate the events of the actual births of John and Jesus? The reason is that these stories explain to us the significance of the future ministry of John the Baptist and also the significance of who exactly Jesus was. The story about John the Baptist informs us that he is the forerunner of the Messiah and that God’s salvation is about to break into history with the beginning of his ministry. We shall see in the following paragraphs the significance both of who Jesus is and of His ministry.
An important point needs to be made here. Zechariah and Elizabeth could have had a child without any explanation from the angel. Would they not have figured out the significance of John without any help from the angel? Moreover, Mary could simply have had a child miraculously, and she could have figured out the significance of this special child. Right? Wrong. The Bible very clearly claims that God’s ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts. (Is. 55:8-11). Unless God reveals to us the meaning of what He does, we will never, ever figure them out on our own. If you want to compare God’s understanding of an event with people’s understanding, compare in just a moment the way God understands the birth of Jesus with the way Joseph understands it. If God does not communicate to us, we will never understand what He is doing. Fortunately for us though, Jesus is such a communicator that He calls Himself “the Word” (John 1:1-3, 14).
ANNOUNCEMENT OF JESUS’ BIRTH TO MARY (1:26-38)
Luke informs us that 6 months after Elizabeth became pregnant, the angel Gabriel appeared once more to a virgin named Mary who lived in the village of Nazareth. In the first century AD, Nazareth was a sleepy little village nestled in a little hollow on the southern slope of the southern Galilean mountains. She was such an unimportant town that Josephus the Jewish historian fails to mention her even though in his writings he mentions hundreds of villages and towns located in Israel. God was going to raise His Son in solitude, away from the noise of the major cities. She was surrounded on 3 sides with mountains—north, east, and west. To the south lay before her the valley of Armageddon and Mt. Carmel, the site where Elijah offered his sacrifice to God. (Since Jesus will eventually be raised in Nazareth, we can say that each morning Jesus rose up and faced these 2 important sites, thereby probably impressing upon Him constantly the end of the world and the charismatic figure of Elijah.)
The angel greets Mary and informs her that she is highly favored. Some believe that Mary was full of favor and grace, and as such has the right to give that grace to you and me. The actual word though means that she has been favored, literally, “graced.” Whereas Mary is special because of the wonderful thing God was about to do through her, she was nevertheless special only because God was the one doing this. Mary is like the rest of us; we have grace from God because God has chosen to grace us and for no other reason.
Gabriel explains to Mary the reason why she is so favored. First, she is about to conceive and bear a son whose name is to be called “Jesus.” At first blush, this seems to be no problem at all because women have children all the time. Second, this child will be great because He is going to be the Son of the Most High. The angel uses the term “Most High” most likely in order to avoid using the divine name, a common characteristic of the Gospel of Matthew. He may have used it though in order to inform Mary beforehand that Jesus is the true God’s Son in an ultimate sense. Even if other gods existed, He is not one of their sons; He is not the child of a lesser god. He is the Son of the Most High God. Furthermore, her Child will assume the throne of His father David; this kingdom will be eternal. This prediction hearkens back to the OT prophecy about one of David’s sons assuming his throne and reigning forever and ever.
At this point, Mary questions the angel: “How can this be?” Unlike Zechariah, Mary is not questioning if Gabriel’s words will find fulfillment; rather, she is asking how she will be able to give birth to this child. The reason she asks this is she is only betrothed to the man, Joseph; she is not married to him and has not therefore experienced sexual relations with him nor any other man. Mary’s question underlines 2 points. It first underlines the point that Mary is a virgin. What is about to happen is going to happen to a virgin, not to a young woman who has experienced sexual relations. Second, it underlines the point that we are dealing with real historical people here. Many claim that Luke and Matthew concocted the stories of the virgin birth. These same people claim that people in the first century had no problems at all in believing in virgin births because these first-century people were superstitious and ignorant. This verse, as does the following episode with Joseph, shows us that these are not gullible people we’re dealing with here. They unlike some people in Florida’s 2000 election did not fall off the turnip truck yesterday; they know how babies are conceived. For this reason, Mary questions how this will occur.
The angel informs her that the Holy Spirit Himself—God’s Spirit—will overshadow her and produce in her the Son of God. The word “overshadow” here calls to mind the movement of the cloud during the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites during Moses’ day. The cloud which housed God’s Spirit moved before the people as they marched towards Canaan; however, whenever God wanted to stop and make camp, the cloud would remain stationary. After the Tabernacle had been pitched, God’s Spirit would descend and overshadow the tent so that God could then converse with Moses. (This same idea occurs when the cloud from heaven covers the mountain where Jesus was being transfigured).
The result of this would be that the child born in her would not only be holy but also be the Son of God. By Son of God, the angel does not mean that He is less than God. Even though Jesus is the Son, He is as much God as the Father. He is the Son in the sense that He always obeys His Father; however, in essence or make-up, He is as much God as the Father is God. Probably a more accurate way of describing Jesus would be to call Him “God the Son.”
Gabriel then assures Mary that what he has predicted will come true by pointing to what has recently happened to Elizabeth. He informs Mary that Elizabeth her cousin who had been noted for being barren had actually conceived and was going to bare a son. The fact that God had performed a miracle in Elizabeth should help convince Mary that He was going to perform this miracle in her also. Besides the sign of Elizabeth’s pregnancy though, Mary needed to realize that with God all things are possible—even the unique experience of a virgin birth.
At this point, Mary humbly replies that she will submit to whatever God wants her to do. Mary’s response is not a mere pious response. Mary most likely knew the immediate consequences of what was about to happen to her. An unmarried woman getting pregnant? Tongues were about to wag. She couldn’t go around saying that she had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. That would have made things only worse. Nevertheless, she still chose to submit to the Father’s will. (One thing needs to be noted here—Mary’s concerns were not baseless. Whereas Mary is one of the most honored of all women among the 2 billion Christians who live today, she was not so honored during her lifetime and right afterwards. The names the Jews heaped upon her cannot be printed in a Christian paper, but they do characterize her as a slut and whore).
Before we go on to the Joseph portion of the story, we need to address the issue of the necessity of the virgin birth. Many claim that you can be a Christian and not believe in the virgin birth. The truth is that when we share the gospel, we do not mention the virgin birth. Instead we speak of our alienation from God and our reconciliation with Him through Jesus Christ; however, I find it difficult to believe that any Christian who must believe that Jesus is God the Son would reject the virgin birth. There is no other way that Jesus could be both God the Son and also man apart from the virgin birth. The virgin birth means that whereas Jesus is man because He was born of an earthly mother, He is nevertheless God because God is His only Father.
This is not merely academic. If Jesus had both a human father and mother, He could not save us. Why? Because only a perfect person could save us. No mere mortal is ever perfect. Some people may actually be good; however, no one is perfect and that is exactly what is called for in this instance. Why though was it necessary for God to become a man in order to save us? Because man got us into our predicament in the first place. According to Paul, since man (Adam) got us into this predicament, God requires that man get us out of it; therefore, Jesus the God-man meets both criteria for saving us. As man, He gets us out of the predicament man created; as God, He is perfect and can offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice in order to save us. The virgin birth affirms all this.
THE ANGEL’S APPEARANCE TO JOSEPH (Matt. 1:18-25)
By the time this story occurs, Joseph has learned about Mary’s pregnancy. For reasons we shared earlier, Mary most likely did not inform Joseph of the true nature of her pregnancy. He would not have believed her anyway, so why bother. He would have thought her crazy. Anyway, whenever Joseph discovered that his betrothed was pregnant, he being a righteous man decided to divorce her; since he was also a good and kind man though, he decided not to make a scene out of this situation but instead chose to have a small private divorce.
Why all this talk about divorce since Mary and Joseph were only engaged? An engagement in the first century was a lot more serious than it is today. In the first century, whenever a couple became engaged, they were for all intents and purposes legally married. The father of the bride entered a legal contract with the father of the groom (with a lot of input from the groom). The father of the groom paid the father of the bride a dowry since the bride’s father was losing a productive family member whereas the groom’s father was gaining one. The engagement lasted normally for about one year during which time the bride lived with her father. At the end of the year, preparations were made for the bridal feast and wedding ceremony. At the beginning of the feast, the groom would go to the bride’s house and bring her home with him. Only at that point would the couple sexually consummate their marriage. If during the engagement period either the bride or groom had sexual relations with anybody else, they were to be tried as adulterers and if found guilty put to death by stoning. By the first century the practice of stoning the adulterer had pretty much fallen by the wayside; however, adultery was still a serious matter and normally resulted in divorce. Joseph wants to do the right thing and so chooses to divorce her; however, he loves Mary so much that he refuses to make a public spectacle out of her. He will divorce her only in the presence of 2 or 3 witnesses and not the whole town.
Again, notice how Joseph’s response shows us that these are not just a bunch of gullible people easily believing in miracles much less making up stories. He sees Mary pregnant and naturally assumes she has become pregnant the natural way—just without him being involved. Study the account of the resurrection. When the disciples saw an empty tomb, they did not immediately think Jesus had risen from the dead. They thought somebody had stolen His body. The only thing that convinced them that Mary had virginally conceived and that Jesus had risen from the dead was God stepping in and informing them. It took God to change their minds; nothing else would do.
One night while Joseph is asleep, an angel appears to him in his dream and instructs him to take Mary to be his wife. She has not played the harlot; instead the child growing inside her is actually begotten by the Holy Spirit. Joseph is to take this child as his own, that is, legally adopt it, and call His name Jesus. The baby is given the name “Jesus” because the name means “Jehovah will save” or “He will save.” The name points to the fact that Jesus will save His people from their sins.
According to the angel, all this has occurred in order to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy that one day a virgin will conceive and bear a son whose name will be Immanuel, which literally means, “God with us.” When we studied this passage in Isaiah, we said that its immediate fulfillment centered around the baby born in Isaiah’s time whose presence indicated that God was still with the Jews and the Davidic dynasty. As much as God was with His people through the birth of this child, how much more God is with us in His Son Jesus. God was with the baby born in Isaiah’s day; however, God is that little baby born in Bethlehem.
A deeper look at the Bible reveals to us that in many ways it is ultimately about God deepening His relationship with us. In the OT, we have a distant God who appears to His people in thunder and lightning on Mt. Sinai. God is out there. With the coming of Christ though, God the Son draws closer to us. God is now in our very midst—walking and talking with us. At Pentecost, God now comes to live in us to draw us into a closer relationship with Him. God is now in us. Finally, a day will arrive when God the Father will actually come to dwell in our midst so that we will see Him face to face. On that day no barriers will exist between us and God. Our relationship with Him will have been deepened to the greatest degree.
Joseph agrees to take the baby, legally adopt it, and raise him as his own son. Matthew then informs us that Joseph and Mary did not have sexual relations until after the baby Jesus was born. The reason is that the couple wanted to make sure that they could honestly claim that there was no chance in the world that this baby was conceived by natural means. The statement that they did not have relations UNTIL after the baby was born implies that Mary and Joseph did have sexual relations after the baby’s birth.
Many well-meaning Christians have claimed that Mary remained a virgin up until her death and that the other children Mary and Joseph had were actually children from Joseph’s previous marriage. There are 2 problems with this. First, nowhere in the NT does it say that Joseph was previously married. This claim has been created in order to keep Mary a perpetual virgin. Why the need to keep Mary a perpetual virgin? Because some believe that sex is sinful. Well, it’s not. God created it and is therefore good. By claiming that Mary and Joseph had sexual relations later does not take away from the marvelous woman she was.
The main point in this story is that Jesus is the Messiah (or as the Greeks would translate it, the Christ). Based on such passages as 2 Samuel 7:12-16 and Isaiah 42:1, 61:1; Ezekiel 36:26-27; Joel 2:28-29; and Zech. 9:9-10, the Jews believed that one day God would send forth His Spirit upon the world to usher in a new age. In that age the lion would lie down with the lamb, while the child would play with the cobra. The physical earth itself would be radically transformed. Sin and death would be completely abolished, while righteousness would reign upon the earth. What would be the catalyst for the sending of the Spirit? The coming of the Messiah (Christ), the One who would be anointed with God's Spirit. He would not only take our sins and sorrows upon Himself but after His resurrection from the dead, He would reign over the universe. Matthew claims that Jesus is this Anointed One, the One who has come to rule in the hearts of men.
Look at the evidence Matthew presents for his claim that Jesus is the Messiah. First, Jesus has descended from David (Matt. 1:1, 20). Second, not only has the Spirit begun once more to operate, He has come upon Mary so that Jesus who is filled with the Spirit might come into the world. Moreover, this Jesus will save people from their sins (1:21). In other words, the Messiah, the King has come.
What is even more wonderful is that not only has the King come, a King far greater than any ever imagined has come. As great as Alfred the Great was, as powerful as the Caesars were, as glorious was Victoria was in her reign, all these rulers pale in comparison to this king. For He is no mere mortal. He is Immanuel, God with us. The Jews were wanting a king. They got much more. They got God Himself.