The Virgin Conception of Jesus

Matthew 1:18-25

Is there any point to human birth? Have you ever wondered why human beings keep on being born? They are just going to die anyway. What is the point? Matthew might have had a few readers wonder that after he begins his monumental Gospel with a long genealogy. But eventually we see that there is a point to all this, isn’t there? There is a point to human life. Life has meaning.

Matthew has brought us to an interesting point in his genealogy. Joseph is not the human father of Jesus. He is the husband of Mary of whom was born Jesus. What we are about to study tonight is in a large part a commentary on verse 16. Matthew wants us to have the answer to this question: How is it possible that Jesus could still be the heir to David’s throne if he had no human father? How can Jesus be David’s Lord, if He is also David’s son? That is what Matthew is about to explain to us.

We have seen that mankind has not been able to solve the sin problem. No matter how many generations are born, each new generation is still as sinful as the one that came before. None of the names before Jesus that Matthew mentions were able to solve the problem. Since all the genealogical possibilities have been exhausted, it is now time for God to step in.

Note again that the text has the word “genesis.” The word translated “birth” is again our word for “genesis.” The word could actually just as easily refer to Christ’s conception in the womb of Mary as to His actual birth. That is why I titled this sermon “the virgin conception of Christ” rather than “the virgin birth of Christ.” In our entire passage, the birth of Christ is not mentioned. What is being talked about is how Jesus came to be in the womb of Mary.

The text says that Mary was betrothed to Joseph. Betrothal in that time period meant a lot more than engagement does in our culture. In our culture, engagement merely means a promise. But that promise could be broken off at any time without any legal repercussions. Not so with ancient betrothal. Usually the children were promised to someone, often at birth. When the girl reached the age of 12 or 13, she was betrothed to the man she would marry. That period of betrothal lasted one year. During that time, if either party was unfaithful to the other, then the full punishment of the law against adultery could be enforced. To break off a betrothal required a certificate of divorce. Betrothal meant that the couple was spoken for, and that no one could come between them. The only difference between betrothal and actual marriage was that during betrothal, the couple were not allowed to be physically intimate.

That helps to explain why Joseph is in such a quandary in verse 19. The text says that Joseph was a just man. Mary was beginning to be obviously pregnant. For Joseph, who knew that he was not the father, the only conclusion that he could reach was that Mary had been unfaithful to him. The righteous thing to do then would be to divorce her. In fact, ancient law all over the Mediterranean world required that if the woman had been unfaithful during betrothal, then the husband was required to divorce her. This would be expected of Joseph. The NIV gives us the impression that Joseph’s righteousness is the reason for his mercy. This is not accurate. Joseph’s righteousness is the reason for the fact that he is about to divorce Mary. It should not be translated, “Because Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose her…” Rather it should be translated, “Joseph was a righteous man, but he did not want to expose her to public disgrace.” Joseph’s options are limited: if he continues the marriage, then he will be censured by the people and by the law. He rules that option out. The second option is to bring Mary to a public trial. That will completely exonerate him, but it will put her to everlasting disgrace. She would never be able to get married after that kind of a disgrace. So the third option is to combine justice and mercy by getting a certificate of divorce, but by involving as few people as possible. This kind of behavior is truly worthy of David’s heir. The king was to be just and merciful. That is exactly what Matthew wants us to think about Joseph. Joseph is a king in Matthew’s eyes. That is why Matthew spends so much time going through Joseph’s decision-making process in the first two chapters.

As Joseph was considering these things, God revealed something to him in a dream. God revealed the real cause of Mary’s pregnancy. Notice that it does not even occur to Joseph to doubt the dream. It reminds us of another Joseph who was a master of dreams. We will see in later studies that Joseph goes into Egypt just like the other Joseph.

Notice carefully that the angel calls Joseph “Son of David.” We should not just pass over that. It is the only place in the entire Gospel where someone other than Jesus is called “Son of David.” That proves that Joseph was in the line of the throne. When the angel says “do not fear,” he means that Joseph should not fear the scandal that will arise on account of Joseph’s adoption of Jesus as his own son. For scandal will arise. In John’s Gospel we read about the Jews who cast doubt on Jesus’ legitimacy by saying, “We were not born of fornication,” implying that Jesus was. The angel was asking Joseph to take upon himself the shame of having everyone around them think that Joseph had gotten Mary pregnant. This is scandalous. In this, Joseph is a fore-runner to Jesus. Joseph endures the reproach of the world, just as Jesus will on the cross. It is humiliation that Joseph is being asked to bear, just as Jesus will bear humiliation.

The angel removes all doubt about Mary’s faithfulness by telling him that a new creation has dawned. The Holy Spirit has come, and is hovering over new waters in Mary’s womb, and is bringing about a new creation. The Holy Spirit is really bringing new life to the world through Jesus.

In the next verse, the angel tells Joseph to adopt the child. That is what naming the child would imply. If Joseph decides to keep Mary as his wife, and actually take part in the naming ceremony, then Joseph would be the legal father of Jesus by adoption. That is how Jesus can be David’s Lord, while still being David’s Son.

Naming was an important ceremony in the ancient world. Especially in Israel, children were given names that indicated the parents’ hopes for their children. Also, names were thought to shape the person’s life. In no case was the name more important than in this case. The name Jesus means “God saves.” It is the OT name Joshua. Just as Joshua would lead the people into the promised land, so also Jesus would lead the people in a greater Exodus into a greater promised land. But there is yet more to Jesus’ name. What Jesus’ name means is what mothers would cry out when in the midst of labor pains. They would cry out, “God help me!” And so Jesus is the answer to the pain endured in child-bearing. We have seen that in our Genesis studies that the seed of the woman would reverse the pain that the woman had to endure while bearing children. That promise is fulfilled in Mary’s giving birth to Jesus. Truly, God would help and save his people. What is something of a surprise is the last part of verse 21. By itself, Jesus’ name does not tell us what it is that we will be saved from. The Jews expected that the Savior would save them from the Romans. That is why it is something of a surprise that Jesus will actually save people from their sins. But it is the good news. We have a better salvation for us in the person of Jesus Christ than that for which the hope of the Jews would ever have prepared them. Let them be saved from the Romans! I would much rather be saved from my sins. Notice that the name means that God saves. He is the one who does it. The fact that He does it through Christ is another proof that Jesus is more than a man. God saves now through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the only name under heaven and on earth by which mankind can come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved.

“All this” refers to the entire genealogy and the account of the miraculous conception of Jesus, and what Joseph did. All of that was planned by God to be the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14. Matthew actually structures his entire book around OT quotations which Jesus fulfills. There are a total of eleven fulfillment passages in Matthew. This suggests that we are to view Christ’s ministry in terms of the OT, and that we are to read the OT in the light of Jesus Christ. Now the context in Isaiah is well worth our examination. Ahaz was looking to the Assyrians for salvation from the Babylonians. God says that He will save Israel. He even commands Ahaz to seek a sign from the Lord. Ahaz refuses to do this, based on some kind of false piety. So the Lord says, “All right, you can refuse my help, but I will not abandon my promise. This is the sign, a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and she will call his name Emmanuel.” The name “Emmanuel” means “God with us,” or “God is with us.” The context indicates that God is with the people in a saving way. The prophecy was never really fulfilled in Ahaz’s time. It remained for God to fulfill it in the fullness of time when Jesus came and was born of a woman. The people though were thinking the same thoughts that Ahaz was thinking. They wanted a political deliverance. In both cases, they wanted the wrong thing. What they should have wanted was deliverance from sin. John Calvin says this, “Out of Christ, we are alienated from God, but through Christ we are not only received into God’s favor, but we are also one with Him.”

Finally, Joseph awakes from sleep and does exactly as the angel had told him. We see here that God’s grace enables human action. Joseph was somewhat paralyzed before the dream. He didn’t know what to do, until he finally came to a decision that looked like the least of all the possible evils. But then God intervened, and then Joseph was able to do what the Lord would have him to do: Joseph took Mary home as his wife. The custom was that the betrothed wife would stay at her father’s house until the time when the groom would come to take her to his home. Joseph now took her to his home. However, he did not consummate the marriage until Mary had given birth to Jesus. The final line of the chapter tells us tat in fact Joseph legally adopted Jesus as the her to the throne of David.

Let us look at several ways we can apply these truths to our lives. Just as Jesus was formed in the womb of Mary, so also is he formed in us when we come to faith in Jesus. However, that process of Jesus being formed in us takes our entire lives to perfect, just as it takes time for the body to form in the womb of Mary. We should not be discouraged at the amount of time it takes for us to become holy. That is why God gives to us our entire lives to become so. However, though we should not be discouraged at the amount of time it takes for Christ to be formed in us, there is still a sense in which we should be impatient for Christ to be formed in us. Paul was impatient until the time when Christ should be formed in his readers. We should not be discouraged, but we should be impatient. We should long for holiness with all of our being.

Next we need to realize that God is with us. God is with us even when all others have deserted us. God is with us when no one else seems to care. God is with the sick; God is with the dying, God is with the joyful; God is with the sad; God is with parents; God is with children; God is with teenagers who like to be independent; God is with the aged; God is with us. And He is with us in the person of Jesus Christ.

We need to recognize that God’s grace enables us to be holy and obedient to God’s word. We should realize two things: that it is only God who can enable us; and also that we are then enabled and should therefore do what God has commanded us to do. God tells us to mortify sin, to put it to death. That means all our secret sins that no one knows about just as much as it means those obvious sins that everyone knows about. Only God can enable us to put those sins to death. Once we are united to Christ, then we have the Holy Spirit forming Christ in us, just as He did in Mary. Therefore, we should put those sins to death. Christ has not redeemed us in sin, but out from sin. Christ has not redeemed us so that we can wallow in our sins thinking that God has forgiven us, therefore we can do whatever we want. No, Christ has redeemed us such that we no longer live to sin, but have died to sin. How can we live in it any longer? Jesus has saved us from our sins. Therefore let us live a sin-free life.

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