Last week we spent our time on the Lord’s genealogy which appears at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel and which presents the Lord Jesus as the fulfilment of God’s Old Testament promises, because didn’t God promise that one of David’s descendants would rule as king and his kingdom will never end? And didn’t God promise that all nations of the earth will be blessed through one of Abraham’s descendants? And the Lord Jesus is the promised son of David who reigns forever; and he’s the promised offspring of Abraham who blesses the nations by pardoning our sins and by giving us his Spirit. And so, Matthew records the Lord’s genealogy to make clear for us that the Lord Jesus is descended from David and Abraham.
One of the features of the genealogy is the repetition of the words ‘the father of’: Abraham was the father of Isaac; Isaac was the father of Jacob; Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers; and so on down through the generations. However, those words are not used when we get to Joseph. Look at verse 15: Eliud was the father of Eleazer; Eleazaer was the father of Matthan; Matthan was the father of Jacob; Jacob was the father of Joseph. And instead of saying that Joseph was the father of Jesus, it says Joseph was the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ. Joseph was not the father of Jesus. Jesus was not the son of Joseph. In that case, how did Jesus come to be? If he did not come from Joseph, how did he come into the world? That’s what verses 18 to 25 tell us.
Matthew begins verse 18 by telling his readers that he’s going to tell us how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. And his account begins with Mary, who was pledged to be married to Joseph. Matthew doesn’t explain who Mary is or who Jospeh is. He assumes we know already.
Mary was pledged to Joseph in the sense that she was pledged to be his wife. You’ll perhaps know that engagements in those days were different to what they are now, because in those days an engagement was a binding contract which was entered into before witnesses and could only be broken by death or divorce. During the engagement period, which lasted about a year, the couple did not live together, but they were regarded as husband and wife. Then, at the end of the engagement period, the woman would leave her father’s home and go to live with her husband and the occasion was marked by a public ceremony. Leaving her father’s home to live with her husband was known as ‘coming together’. Matthew tells us that before Mary and Joseph came together like this, Mary was found to be with child. However, Matthew adds that this happened ‘through the Holy Spirit’. So, she hadn’t been unfaithful to Joseph by committing adultery with another man. Instead the child within her was conceived through the Holy Spirit.
And so here’s the answer to the question of how the Lord Jesus could be born without a human father. It’s because he was conceived through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit brought it about. How exactly it happened is a mystery, but we believe he was conceived in the womb of Mary through the Holy Spirit of God.
Verses 19 to 21
In verse 19 Matthew tells us that Jospeh was a righteous man. In other words, he was a godly man who always wanted to do what was right. And since he was a righteous man, he could not rightfully marry a woman who was already pregnant. However, since he could not explain Mary’s pregnancy, then he was unwilling to make her go through a shameful and public trial. As one commentator (Weinandy) puts it, ‘What was perplexing to Joseph is that he could not establish the cause of Mary’s pregnancy.’ And so, the right thing for him to do in these unusual circumstances was to divorce Mary with as little fuss as possible.
But then, according to verse 20, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and spoke to him. The angel referred to him as ‘son of David’. And you see, Joseph’s descent from David is the reason he’s important, because by taking Mary as his lawful wife and by adopting Jesus as his lawful child, Joseph would give to Jesus the lawful status of a son of David. Even though he did not have a human father, the Lord Jesus would be lawfully regarded as being descended from David and Abraham and therefore the one who fulfilled God’s promises to his people.
And the angel told Joseph not to be afraid to marry Mary. That is, he should not hesitate to take her home. And the angel explained to Joseph that Mary conceived her child from the Holy Spirit. And he went on to say that Mary will give birth to a son and Joseph should give Mary’s son the name Jesus. By naming the child, Joseph would make clear that he regarded this child as his own. And we thought about the name Jesus last week. It’s the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua which means ‘the Lord saves’. Throughout the Old Testament, God revealed himself as the Saviour of his people, because again and again he saved them from danger. But now God has come in the person of his Son to save his people from the penalty we deserve for our sins. And just as Joshua in the Old Testament saved God’s people from the Canaanites and gave them life in the Promised Land, so Jesus saves us from our sins and he gives us everlasting life in the Promised Land to come. And therefore, every time we say his name, and every time we hear his name, we ought to remember and believe that he’s the Saviour of the world, because he came into the world as one of us to lay down his life as the ransom to pay for our sins and shortcomings so that all who believe in him may have forgiveness and eternal life in the new heavens and earth.
Verses 22 and 23
And Matthew adds the first of his fulfilment sayings. I mentioned last week that he tells us in ten or so places that whatever happened in the life of Christ happened in order to fulfil what the Lord had said in the Old Testament. And here we have the first of those fulfilment sayings. All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet Isaiah. And he quotes from Isaiah 7 where Isaiah spoke about a virgin who will be with child and who will give birth to a son. And Matthew wants us to understand that Mary is the virgin Isaiah spoke about. And therefore, Christ’s coming into the world is the fulfilment of God’s Old Testament promises.
And the virgin’s child will not only be called Jesus, but he will also be called Immanuel. Matthew helpfully explains for his readers that the word Immanuel means ‘God with us’. And that name makes clear that Mary’s son, who was conceived in this special way by the Holy Spirit, is the Lord God who has come to earth to be with his people. In the past, God was with his people in the temple, but now he has come to his people in the person of his Son. In the past, God’s people went to the temple to receive forgiveness, but now God’s people must go to the Lord Jesus to receive forgiveness. God has come among his people in the person of his Son to deliver us from our sin and misery and to give us everlasting life in the new heavens and earth.
Verses 24 and 25
And in the final two verses of the chapter, Matthew tells us that when Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord commanded him to do. He took Mary home as his wife. And then Matthew is careful to add that Joseph had no union with her. That is, he did not sleep with her until she gave birth to her son. By these words, Matthew confirms for his readers that Mary’s child was conceived through the Holy Spirit and not by Joseph. And when the child was born, Joseph gave him the name Jesus. And by naming him, he confirmed that he was adopting the child as his own.
Before we finish, it might be helpful to say a little about the doctrine of Christ’s two natures. Jesus, when he was born, was a human child. He was just like you or me; though, unlike you and me, his was not a fallen human nature, but it was like Adam’s sinless human nature in the beginning. But apart from that one way, he was human just like you and me. However, his name Jesus means ‘the Lord saves’ and the name Immanuel means ‘God with us’. And so, Mary’s son is also the Lord. He is God. He is one person, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity. But this one person, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, took to himself a human nature. The one divine person, God the Son, who possessed a divine nature from eternity, assumed a human nature so that he now has both. He is God and man. He is divine and human. He is a single individual, but he possesses the divine nature and a human nature.
Throughout the years, there have been many false ideas about the incarnation. Some have denied the reality of his divine nature, saying that he was not really God, but was a man who was specially chosen by God. Some have denied the reality of his human nature, saying that he he was not really human, but only seemed that way. Some have have denied the reality of his two distinct natures, saying that the two natures are mixed together to form a third thing; he is not fully divine and fully human, but a mixture of the two. Some have denied the unity of the two natures, saying we need to distinguish between the human Jesus and the divine Son. And there have been other heresies.
But the church has always insisted that he is one divine person, God the Son. And God the Son, who from eternity has possessed the divine nature took to himself a human nature like ours, including a human body and soul and mind and will, so that he is forevermore fully God and fully man in one person. In the language of what’s known as Chalcedonian Definition, he is at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood; truly God and truly man; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and of one substance with us as regards his manhood. As regards his Godhead, he is begotten of the Father before the ages; but as regards his manhood he is begotten of the Virgin Mary. He is one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-Begotten, in two natures: without confusion and without change, so that neither nature is changed into something else; and without division and and without separation, so that the two natures are not treated as separate persons. And these two distinct natures are united in the person of the Eternal Son of God, who became flesh and made his dwelling among us and who suffered and died for us and for our salvation.
We have to insist on his full divinity, because throughout the pages of the Old Testament God promised that he and he alone would save his people. And therefore he could not hand over our salvation to someone else, but he himself had to save us. And we have to insist on his full humanity, because he had to become one of us in order to represent us and to suffer God’s wrath on our behalf. Only a human could pay for our sins. And therefore God the Son became one of us to save us from our sins. And God the Son has saved us by dying on the cross and offering up himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins. And since it is God who saved us by his Son, then it is God who deserves the glory and praise both now and forevermore.