NIV Matthew 1:18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”–which means, “God with us.” 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
One of the joys of parenthood is the opportunity to gaze upon a newborn child for the first time and dream about what he or she may become. Most parents have high hopes and expectations for their children. Along with dreams, one of the initial acts of parenting involves choosing a name. Many parents go to great links to select just the right ones. Shelves of local libraries and booksellers are always stocked full of books of names. If only each child born into our world were able to embody fully all of the hopes and dreams that inspired the name given at his or her birth! How much more did the birth of Jesus represent incredible possibilities?
The birth of Jesus represents the beginning stage of the climax of God’s mission. The God of the Scriptures is a God of mission. God seeks to bring renewal, hope, and restoration to all people and to all of creation. Amazingly God does not act alone. God calls women and men to serve in God’s ultimate cause. God advances his great work through the lives of faithful people who courageously follow God’s call on their lives.
In our text, Matthew recounts the in utero days of Jesus as well as the report of Jesus’ naming.
Our text covers familiar territory. Most of us have heard about the virgin birth, the appearance of angels, and stories of Mary and Joseph. But many of us miss the scandalous undercurrent of this passage. Jesus’ birth is not penned in the happiest terms. Jesus’ birth involved scandal and intrigue.
A Scandalous Discovery and a Noble Reaction
Our text opens with an unexpected pregnancy. A young woman named Mary was engaged to marry Joseph, a descendant of the line of King David. Yet before the marriage or any sexual contact between the two of them occurred, Mary was discovered to be with child. Our text adds the provocative note, “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (emphasis added). How can this be? It is so easy for us moderns to assume that ancients were naive and easily bent to accept supernatural explanations for events. Our text does not tell us whether or not Mary had told Joseph the true cause of her pregnancy nor do we even know if Mary herself understood it. Joseph however was no fool. He had loved Mary. But he had been betrayed (or so he thought). Mary had brought shame into his life. Her pregnancy, ostensibly by the seed of another man, brought dishonor to Mary, but it also soiled the reputation of Joseph. He had every right to demand justice and a public accounting. But Joseph was a different sort of man. Verse 19 calls him “righteous.” In other words, Joseph was a person of integrity and compassion who sought to act rightly and justly in his relationships with God and with other people. He was the sort of person who sought to value and serve God and others above his own rights and prerogatives.
Joseph served as a conduit for God’s work. Think about it: How would history have been different if Joseph had made Mary’s pregnancy a public matter? What if Mary had faced open charges of adultery? What would have happened to God’s plans?
Of course, these questions are purely hypothetical because Joseph chose to act righteously. Remember this key fact: Joseph was acting justly apart from any supernatural revelation or insight into the true nature of Mary’s pregnancy. God had not uttered one syllable to Joseph but Joseph was already on board with God’s plan because of his own character. Joseph was one of the unsung heroes of the Scriptures.
God is still looking for modern day Josephs or Josephines–men and women who are fully committed to living lives that embody and reflect the character of God in their everyday dealings with others. As our text demonstrates, such lifestyles can change the course of human history. Never underestimate the importance or power of a God-centered, Christ-formed character. Joseph’s character empowered Joseph to act in accordance with God’s plan on instinct. Joseph had no idea that Mary’s pregnancy was God’s doing. Yet because he was a righteous person, that is, a person who acted justly, wisely, and in accordance with God’s character, he was able to open up the future to the powerful work that God was going to do through the child in Mary’s womb.
How many people would be able to describe you as a righteous man or a righteous woman?
In what ways would your life need to change for such a description to be true?
Are we willing to act faithfully in obscurity in order to advance the mission of God?
An Unbelievable Announcement
Joseph’s decision not to expose Mary to public disgrace opened up the future for God to act decisively. God was not finished with either Mary or Joseph. There was a plan to unleash and a mission to accomplish. Before Joseph broke his engagement with Mary, God sent a messenger to him in a dream. This angel exhorted Joseph to wed Marry despite her pregnancy. Joseph is informed that Mary has conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit. There has been no illicit behavior. God is behind this pregnancy.
The baby that Mary was carrying would be a special boy. The angel then offers two names for the boy that point poignantly to the child’s mission and future.
The child’s name will be Jesus for he will save his people from their sins. Jesus is derived from the Hebrew word for “The LORD saves.” In other words, the name Jesus points to Jesus’ mission. From birth, Jesus’ purpose was to act decisively to usher in the age of salvation.
Second, the angel alludes to a second purpose of Jesus’ coming by quoting from the prophet Isaiah. Jesus would embody the hope of “Immanuel” which means “God is with us.” Jesus manifested the presence of God in the world.
Jesus had quite a name to live up to. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus death and resurrection are in view from the very beginning of Jesus’ earthly existence. There is simply no way of understanding Jesus or his mission apart from the Cross. Jesus is the long awaited savior and king, but he is going to be a different sort of one. Jesus has come to give up his life so that others might live; Jesus will be raised up from the dead to unleash those who follow him to live as the people whom God created them to be.
As we know from the rest of the Gospel story, Jesus lived up to his name. Jesus died on the cross to deliver all who believe from the power of sin. Then he sends those whom he delivers back into the world to share this message with others. But his followers do not enter into this mission alone. The last line of Matthew’s Gospel (28:20) echoes the promise of Immanuel: And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Have you experienced Jesus as the one who brings salvation? Have you experienced Jesus as the who makes God’s presence a living reality in our lives?
The Courage to Act
Joseph was left with a choice. He is in on the secret that Mary has conceived from the Holy Spirit. He will marry her and serve as the father of the child. But don’t ever think for a moment that this was an easy choice for Joseph personally. It cost Joseph something of his reputation to follow God’s will on this. For who would believe such a story? Imagine the whispers as it became clear that Mary was already pregnant before the wedding. Even if Joseph shared with the accusers the truth, who would believe his story? Mary pregnant by the Holy Spirit? Yeah, right! Following Jesus Christ involves learning to live above self. This is the courage to act. Erwin Raphael McManus defines courage this way: Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the absence of self. This is also the essence of discipleship. Just as the baby Jesus would grow into the man who would go to the cross to open up a new future for humanity so too are his followers called to live courageously in full participation with God’s mission in the world. Jesus will later say this to his followers:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Matt 16:24)
Joseph chose to live above his own reputation in order to act in line with God’s plans. He takes Mary as his wife. He further honors God and baby whom Mary is carrying by refraining from sexual intercourse for the length of the pregnancy. Then as soon as the boy is born, Joseph receives him as his own son and gives him the name Jesus just as the angel had commanded.
How many of us live courageously and boldly in our walk with Jesus Christ? How would our impact on the world be different is we followed the model of Joseph?
God is looking for heroes and heroines. Each of us was birthed into the world with high hopes and God-given potential. God is seeking women and men through whom He can work to shape a future in line with the character and purposes of God.
What if following Jesus Christ were the way to live a life that demands explanation–one that furthers God’s work and points others to hope and restoration available only through the Gospel?
What do you think?
© 2008 Brian D. Russell