A Bible Lesson on Matthew 1:18-25

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Matthew 1:18-25 provides the circumstances of the birth of Jesus.

Matthew 1:18  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.

Jewish marriage of this time proceeded through an engagement, to a betrothal, to the “full-fledged” married state.  An engagement was something that was often arranged by parents for fairly young people.  Engagements were serious, but not binding.  But at the time that a betrothal was made, matters changed.  Couples exchanged wedding vows and they were legally married.  The only way to dissolve a betrothal was through a divorce.  If one party died during the betrothal, the other was considered widowed.  The betrothal typically lasted for a period of 1 year.  During that time, though the man and woman were pledged to each other and legally man and wife, the woman continued to live with her parents and they were not intimate.  Only after the period of betrothal was over, did the woman come into the man’s house and did they physically consummate the marriage.  The intention here in verse 18 is that we understand that Mary and Joseph were in this “in between” state of betrothal.  They were pledged, legally man and wife, but not living together and not physically intimate.

During this time, Mary is found to be pregnant.  We (and Mary) know that it is the work of God’s Holy Spirit.  Joseph, on the other hand, doesn’t know this.  What a heart-rending situation for both Mary and Joseph.  Mary knows what’s happening, but how can she hope to have it make sense to Joseph or anyone else?  There’s no indication here that she even tries to explain to Joseph.  What, after all, is it going to sound like if she tries?  It would appear to be the most monstrous of blasphemy!  Not only has she been immoral, is an adulteress, but here she is trying to explain her way out of the thing by saying that it’s God’s doing.  If Joseph or anyone else is going to believe her, God is going to have to intervene in a most direct and miraculous way.  Joseph, for his part, must be torn up.  The only “sensible” explanation of what’s going on is that his dear young wife is an adulteress.

19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.

This verse speaks volumes about the kind of man Joseph is.  This is a person who knows what is right, who knows and abides by the Law.  But he’s also a tender and gentle person.  This is a terribly serious and messy situation.  He’s been hurt and apparently greatly wronged by someone that he clearly loves.  But he can’t just ignore it, because to do so would make him appear to be unchaste too.  What’s he to do?  He could he could save his own reputation by demanding the most severe penalty possible and public humiliation.  Instead, he intends to take the matter only before 2 witnesses and simply divorce Mary.  Even in that, there is a feeling of reluctance and sadness conveyed here.  Between the lines are sleepless nights and deep sadness.

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.

This order is significant.  First Joseph determines to do right.  Then God intervenes and gives him some understanding of the reality of the situation.  He doesn’t get everything explained up front.  He has to agonize through the hard choices before he’s given clarity.

Notice too how the angel addresses Joseph: as one standing in the royal line of descent.  This is what Matthew established in the genealogy, and he does stand in David’s line.  But remember that this is a rough carpenter in the backwoods town of Nazareth here!  And an angel comes with a greeting like this?   What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  The obvious and plain meaning of this is that Mary is pregnant without the aid of a human father.  This is mind-boggling, miraculous, wonderful, and the absolutely clear intention of the announcement.

21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 

According to Luke, Mary had already been told to name the baby Jesus.  But Joseph is going to be the legal father, and as such, it’s his responsibility to name the child.  And he’s told to name the boy Jesus/Jeshua/Joshua/Yahweh saves/the I AM is salvation.  This is “because he will save his people from their sins.”

Psalm 130:8 And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

He Himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.  The Psalm refers to Israel.  Matthew tells it was broadened to “his” people, Messiah’s people, be they Jew or Gentile.  This is going to be Messiah, but a Messiah for all people, One who will deal with our most fundamental problem, our guilt before a completely righteous and holy God.

Note carefully that even His name makes it clear that ultimately it is God who deals with our guilt before Himself.  It is the I AM/Yahweh who saves.

Matthew, in typical fashion for him, moves immediately to remind us that this is consistent with the Old Testament promises.

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). 

This is the quote from the Septuagint version of Isaiah 7:14.  The Hebrew word used in Isaiah doesn’t necessarily mean virgin, but could mean only “maiden”/young unmarried girl, and the short-term fulfillment of that prophecy obviously did not involve a virgin birth.  But by the 3rd century BC the Greek translation of the OT used the word that Matthew uses here, that does specifically mean “virgin.”  The long-term fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in Jesus certainly does involve a virgin birth.  And in a way that was probably not even dreamed of by Isaiah, they shall call his name “God with us,” God with us clothed in humanity.  This Isaiah surely didn’t understand completely, but Matthew did, and is saying it in very clear terms.

It’s important that what Matthew’s relating to us has the context of years of prophecy and waiting.  Without that we are at the mercy of whatever crackpot that shows up on the scene claiming a special place for him or herself.  There is a huge difference between someone saying “I’m the one that others have been promising for hundreds of years, check to see that I’ve got the goods,” and somebody saying “Hey, I’m a total surprise, disjoint from the record of God’s dealing with humanity.  The only authentication you’ll get for me is from my followers.  But trust me!”

24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife,

Joseph has a most tender heart.  He obeys.  It can’t altogether make sense to him at this point.  It probably never did in his lifetime (assuming as most do that he died before Jesus began His ministry).  But he doesn’t hesitate.  It is probably with great relief and real joy that he assumes his God-ordained role as Mary’s husband and the earthly father of Jesus.  Mary’s character has in reality been vindicated, and he’s ready to face with her whatever innuendoes and crude remarks come with the awkward situation that they are in.  He’s probably ready to end the betrothal early so as to become the legal father of Jesus.

25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

Again, Matthew wants to leave no possibility of misunderstanding of the miraculous nature of what he is saying.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

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