You would think that a passage covering the birth of Jesus would be easy “Christmas stuff” we’re all familiar with. Don’t be fooled. Matthew’s account raises some interesting theological questions.
Matthew started his gospel with the genealogy of Jesus to make the point that Jesus is the Christ, that one descendant of Abraham and descendant of David who will fulfill the promises God gave them. These promised blessings are not just to the Jews, but to the entire world.
- Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s point of view.
- 4 times Joseph has a dream that gives him some revelation from God (Mt 1:20; Mt 2:13; Mt 2:19; Mt. 2:22). Plus the magi have a dream (Mt 2:12).
- Matthew tells us 4 times that an Old Testament passage is fulfilled in some way (Mt 1:22; Mt 2:25; Mat 2:17; Mat 2:23).
18Now 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. 19And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20But 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. 21She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” – Matthew 1:18-21
- Betrothal in this age was a much stronger commitment than today. The engaged couple was considered married.
- If Joseph had indeed sent Mary away, the genealogy would not be true.
- The angel refers to Joseph as son of David, reminding Joseph that he is eligible to sit on David’s throne, if it still existed, and so is his son.
- Joseph accepts Mary as his wife and Jesus as his son, giving Jesus a legal right to the line of David.
- The angel tells Joseph that Mary’s son will save his people from their sin. That is the language of kingship and points to the Messiah.
22All 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). 24When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. – Matthew 1:22-25
The debate over how Matthew is handling these Old Testament passages is long and complicated. This is the option that persuades me, but it is not the only possible explanation.
Did Matthew make a mistake?
- No. Matthew knows what he’s doing.
- The very number of passages suggests that Matthew is not trying to sneak sloppy exegesis by us.
- Matthew is writing to Jews who would know the Old Testament well and could easily check on him.
- It seems most likely Matthew is counting on their knowledge of the Old Testament.
- The word fulfill (πληρωθη; Strongs G4137) can mean something predicted has come to pass.
- It can also mean “X is the fullest picture of Y” or that something later in the New Testament is the fullness, epitome or completeness of an Old Testament theme.
- For example, just as Moses lead the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt, Jesus leads us out of captivity to sin. In a sense, Jesus is the fulfillment of Moses. Jesus’ activity fills up or completes the Old Testament passage in some way.
- Quite often Matthew means this second usage.
22All 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). – Matthew 1:22-23
- Mathew is quoting from Isaiah 7.
- Isaiah has been sent to King Ahaz, one of David’s descendants who ruled over the southern kingdom of Judah.
- Ahaz was an evil king.
- The northern kingdom of Israel has made an alliance with the kingdom of Aram against Assyria. They are about to attack Judah. They want to depose Ahaz and put someone on the throne who is more sympathetic to their cause.
- To defend himself from these 2 kingdoms, Ahaz is considering making an alliance with Assyria.
- Isaiah warns him not to make that alliance, but to trust God instead.
- Through Isaiah, God tells Ahaz to ask for a sign that God can and will protect the nation of Judah.
10Then the LORD spoke again to Ahaz, saying, 11“Ask a sign for yourself from the LORD your God; make it deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, nor will I test the LORD!” – Isaiah 7:10-12
- Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign because he wants to follow his own plan, not God’s.
- God says then He will bring Assyria down on Judah, but nevertheless God will be with them.
13Then he said, “Listen now, O house of David! Is it too slight a thing for you to try the patience of men, that you will try the patience of my God as well? 14“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. 15He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good. 16For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken. 17The LORD will bring on you, on your people, and on your father’s house such days as have never come since the day that Ephraim separated from Judah, the king of Assyria.” – Isaiah 7:12-17
- After this name “God with us/Immanuel”, we expect Isaiah to talk about all the wonderful things God is going to do. But Isaiah talks about the disastrous consequences of Ahaz’s unbelief. He says in effect, you think the Assyrians are going to help you, but they are going to be your worst nightmare.
- God tells Isaiah that the Assyrians will wipe out the northern kingdom and carry them off into captivity. And, Assyria will also come close to destroying Judah.
- Through Isaiah, God warns the other nations not to even think about invading Judah because God is with them (Isaiah 8:7-10).
- Then Isaiah reminds them that God’s promise to be with them goes much farther than this trouble with Assyria.
1But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. 2The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them. 3You shall multiply the nation, You shall increase their gladness; They will be glad in Your presence As with the gladness of harvest, As men rejoice when they divide the spoil. 4For You shall break the yoke of their burden and the staff on their shoulders, The rod of their oppressor, as at the battle of Midian. 5For every boot of the booted warrior in the battle tumult, And cloak rolled in blood, will be for burning, fuel for the fire. 6For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. 7There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this. – Isaiah 9:1-7
- In Galilee, in the north where there has been such great gloom, a child will be born.
- The throne of David (the government) will rest on his shoulders.
- He is going to establish peace, justice and righteousness forever.
- This is the most important sense that God is with us.
- The young woman’s son Immanuel (God with us) points forward to the time when God is most fully and truly with them. That is the time when the Messiah, the son of David, sits on his throne and establishes peace and justice and righteousness forever.
When is the child in Isaiah born?
- Scholars are divided over whether Isaiah is predicting the birth of Jesus or predicting the birth of a child in Isaiah’s lifetime.
- The word translated virgin (Isaiah 7:14) can mean either a young girl or a literal virgin. Isaiah could be referring to a young girl who will have a child in his lifetime.
- Isaiah 7:16 makes it sound like the child in 7:14 will be born in Ahaz’s lifetime.
- We know that Isaiah’s other children had prophetic names (Isaiah 7:3; Isaiah 8:3-4; Isaiah 8:18). Perhaps this child is another of Isaiah’s sons.
- On the other hand, Isaiah 7:13 is directed at the “house of David” in the plural.
- This sign of the young girl bearing a child is given to whole house of David, which opens the door to the child being born after Ahaz’s lifetime.
IF this child is not born in Isaiah’s time, but is referring to the birth of Jesus as the Messiah, the connection is fairly straightforward.
- The two stories are not just thematically and theologically similar.
- Jesus is the child of the virgin. He is truly God with us, and he is a sign to the entire house of David.
IF the child is born in Isaiah’s time, then Matthew is thinking something like this:
- A child named Immanuel was born to a young woman in Isaiah’s day. Perhaps that child was another of Isaiah’s sons.
- The name of that child was a sign to Ahaz and also to all God’s people.
- The significance of his name is that God is with His people.
- Ultimately, a child will be born who will be the Messiah, the fullest expression of God with us.
Either way Jesus is the fulfillment of the hope promised in Isaiah. And in either case the promise centers on a young woman who has a child whose name means God with us.