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The birth of Jesus Christ
Matthew chapter 1, verses 18-25
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. 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. 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. 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.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
These verses are Matthew’s brief account of the familiar story of Jesus’ birth. Matthew devotes 17 verses to Jesus’ human genealogy from Abraham to Joseph. Now he reports Jesus’ divine genealogy in a single verse. Mary “was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” This states a fact without even attempting to explain how it took place. It reports a birth that was unique in all of human history. This tells us that the eternal Son of God, who “was with God in the beginning” and through whom “all things were made” (John chapter 1, verses 2 and 3), assumed human flesh and blood in the womb of the virgin Mary. He is true God from eternity, and he is also true man since he was conceived and born of a human mother almost two thousand years ago.
Mary was “pledged to be married to Joseph” at the time. That pledge was more than what we commonly call engagement. It is likely that they had spoken vows of marriage in the presence of witnesses, and they were regarded as husband and wife. According to the custom of the time, the marriage celebration would follow some months later, and only then would the bride and groom begin their life together as one flesh.
When Joseph became aware of Mary’s pregnancy, he could only conclude that she had been unfaithful to him. If that was true, he would not take her home as his wife after all. We can only imagine the pain and disappointment Joseph felt. Matthew tells us only what Joseph did. He was a righteous man. He was righteous in God’s sight through his humble faith in God’s promise of the Savior to come, and so he was concerned about living a righteous life. Hence he did not seek revenge or desire to “expose her to public disgrace.” He rather decided “to divorce her quietly.”
But the Lord intervened. He sent an angel (unnamed, but probably Gabriel) to Joseph in a dream. Joseph did not just dream about an angel bringing him a message; a real angel came to him and spoke to him. He told Joseph, “What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Mary would give birth to a son, and Joseph as legal father was to name the child Jesus.
Jesus was a common name among the Jews. It was the same as the Old Testament (Hebrew) name Joshua. The name Jesus means “God (Jehovah) saves.” When this name was given to an ordinary child, it could be a reminder of God’s promise of a Savior. In Christ’s case, it identified the one and only Savior of the world. Jesus’ name tells who he is (God) and what he does (saves).
The Jewish people, in general, at that time were looking for a different kind of Savior. They wanted a Messiah who would save them from the oppression of the Romans and reestablish a kingdom like that of David and Solomon. But the angel promised the same kind of Savior as the Old Testament prophets had foretold, one who would save his people from their sins. “His people” was not synonymous with the earthly nation of Israel but included people from every race and nation on earth.
Many of the Jews wanted only an earthly Messiah who would provide them with security and material gifts for this life, and some of the Jews even attempted to force Jesus to be that kind of king (John chapter 6, verse 15). Similarly, there are “theologians” today who look to Christ only for liberation from poverty and oppression and not from the frightful, eternal consequences of sin. There are churches that regard their mission as making this world a better place and pay little attention to the perfect, abundant life that can be ours eternally for Jesus’ sake. As Christians, we want to make Christ’s kingdom and his righteousness our highest priority, being confident that he will provide us with the material things we need (see Matthew chapter 6, verse 33).
Matthew was writing primarily to Jews, who were familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures and were looking forward to the fulfillment of the promises of the Lord’s prophets. So he pointed out that the birth of Jesus was taking place exactly as the Lord had promised through his prophet (Isaiah chapter 7, verse 14).
The unusual circumstances of this prophecy are most interesting. King Ahaz of Judah was threatened by King Pekah of Israel and King Rezin of Syria. These kings wanted to destroy the dynasty of Ahaz, which was the line from which the Savior was to be born. Ahaz personally deserved nothing better, but Ahaz’s unworthiness could not prevent God from keeping his gracious promises. So Isaiah went to Ahaz and assured him that the Lord would preserve him from his powerful enemies. He even offered Ahaz the opportunity to ask for a special sign from the Lord to prove that this was a promise from God that would surely be fulfilled. In mock humility, Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, but the Lord said he would provide a sign anyway. Even if Ahaz would never see this sign himself and would not appreciate this promise of a special sign from God, it would be a source of comfort and reassurance for many other people all through the ages.
The sign was that “the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son.” This would happen only once in all of human history, so the special son of the virgin mother could be positively identified and recognized. This special child would be called Immanuel, which means, “God with us.” This child would be God incarnate, the eternal God visibly among us in human flesh and blood.
What an astounding revelation the angel’s message was for Joseph! His doubts about Mary’s faithfulness were completely removed. In their place Joseph received the amazing good news that he would have the privilege of caring for God’s Son, the promised Messiah, the Redeemer of the world!
There are some who maintain that the Hebrew word in Isaiah’s prophecy (almah) means only “young woman” and that Isaiah was not predicting a virgin birth at all; but the ordinary birth of just another child could hardly be regarded as a special sign. Martin Luther once issued the challenge: “If a Jew or Christian can prove to me that in any passage of Scripture almah means a married woman, I will give him one hundred florins, although God alone knows where I might find them.” No one ever collected this reward, and we are confident that no one will ever qualify for it.
The virgin birth of Christ is clearly taught in the Bible, and it is an article of faith that is confessed by the whole Christian church on earth in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ . . . conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.” Martin Luther’s explanation of the Second Article declares that “Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord.”
Joseph believed the angel and obeyed his commands. He “took Mary home as his wife” without delay, but he had no sexual relations with her before Jesus was born. Jesus was Mary’s “firstborn” (Luke chapter 2, verse 7), but this does not indicate whether or not additional children were born to Mary and Joseph. The pious opinion that Mary remained a virgin all her life cannot be proven from Scripture—nor can the opposite. Without reviewing all the arguments pro and con, we’ll simply state that we prefer to believe that Mary and Joseph had subsequent children. This does not diminish the honor that Mary deserves from us. It rather reminds us that marriage is a special blessing from God, and Mary and Joseph honored marriage by enjoying all its blessings.
The visit of the Magi
Matthew chapter 2, verses 1-12
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’ ” Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Artists often picture the Magi (wise men) as worshiping the infant Jesus alongside the shepherds in the stable at Bethlehem. This makes a lovely picture, but it contradicts the facts Matthew has recorded for us. We don’t know the names of these men (tradition calls them Casper, Balthazar, and Melchior), how many there were, exactly where they came from, or precisely when they came.
We do know that they arrived a number of months after Jesus’ birth, for Jesus had already been circumcised and presented in the temple, and Mary and Joseph were now in a house in Bethlehem, not in the stable. Secular records tell us that Herod the king died in 4 B.C. This would indicate that Jesus may have been born in 5 or 6 B.C. according to our calendar.
The Magi were a class of priests, astronomers, and astrologers. They were influential advisors of the king, very likely in Babylon. Some of them were involved in various occult practices. During the 70 years of the Jews’ captivity in Babylon (586–516 B.C.), Daniel was made the presiding officer over the caste of the Magi. From him they surely learned about the Messiah for whom the Jews were waiting. They also had opportunities to learn what Israel’s prophets had foretold about the Messiah. They took these promises very seriously and believed in Israel’s God; otherwise they would hardly have undertaken the long and dangerous journey to find and worship Jesus.
The star that guided them was a special creation of God. It did not look like other stars, and it did not act like other stars. Efforts to explain it as a conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars or as a meteor or a comet are not satisfactory.
The Magi saw this special star in the east. They saw it again when they traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and it guided them to the very house where Mary and Joseph were staying with the Christ Child.
How did the Magi know that this special star signified that the Messiah had been born? All we can say is that God revealed this to them. In Balaam’s prophecy that “a star will come out of Jacob” (Numbers chapter 24, verse 17), the star is the Messiah himself, not a heavenly body announcing his birth.
It was natural for the Magi to come to the capital city of Jerusalem. They expected everyone there to know about the Messiah’s birth, and they were surprised when they asked around and received no information. After a while King Herod heard about the Magi and their search. In order to understand Herod’s treacherous and then violent reaction, we need to know something about the man, and secular records tell us even more than we might care to know.
Herod the Great was an Edomite or Idumean, a descendant of Esau. So he was not really an Israelite. He was the first of several Herods. He was a clever and capable warrior, orator, and diplomat. During the great famine of 25 B.C., he melted down some of the golden items from the palace in order to raise money to help the poor. He built theaters and racetracks for the entertainment of the people, and in 19 B.C. he began rebuilding the temple, which was subsequently known as Herod’s Temple. He also built the port city of Caesarea and the fortress Masada, where in A.D. 73 nearly a thousand Jews committed suicide to avoid being captured by the Romans. Herod truly was one of the great builders in the history of the Jews, perhaps the greatest since King Solomon.
He was also cruel, merciless, and jealous. He had his wife’s brother, Aristobulus the high priest, drowned and then pretended to mourn at the magnificent funeral he provided. He had his own wife Mariamne killed, as well as her mother and three of his sons. Shortly before his death, he had the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem imprisoned and then gave orders that they should be executed at the moment of his own death. In that way he wanted to ensure that there would be mourning in the city at the time of his death, for he knew that otherwise there might be only rejoicing among the citizenry.
So it is easy to see why Herod was upset upon hearing the news of the birth of Jesus, who was called King of the Jews. Even though he was obviously near the end of his life (he died in 4 B.C.), he felt threatened by the report of a newborn king. Since all of Jerusalem knew how violent Herod could be, the people were disturbed when he was upset.
When Herod summoned the men who were authorities on the Old Testament Scriptures, they immediately told him that Bethlehem in Judah was the place where the Messiah was to be born. The prophet Micah had clearly foretold this (Micah chapter 5, verse 2). Although Bethlehem was a small, undistinguished village, God had chosen it as the place where his Son, the Messiah, would be born. The “little town of Bethlehem” would gain a distinction that the grandest city on earth could never match.
Herod’s hypocrisy deceived the Magi. They took him at his word when he asked them to report back to him after finding the special child in Bethlehem. He pretended that he wanted to worship the newborn king too. Actually, he wanted to use the Magi to help him locate and identify the Christ Child so that he could easily destroy this threat to his personal authority.
Guided by the special star, the Magi located the Christ Child, together with Mary and Joseph, in a house in Bethlehem. They worshiped him and presented him with costly gifts. We can see rich symbolism in all three gifts. Precious gold suggests royalty, for Jesus was the King of the Jews. The incense reminds us of Christ’s deity. Incense was regularly used in connection with worship at the temple. Its aromatic smoke rising to the heavens symbolized the God-pleasing prayers of the people ascending to the throne of God. Myrrh symbolizes Jesus’ humanity and pointed to his suffering and death. It was an aromatic resin used in perfume and in the embalming process. It also served as a kind of anesthetic when mixed with wine. That was why the Roman soldiers offered Jesus wine mixed with myrrh as he hung on the cross (Mark chapter 15, verse 23), but he refused to drink it.
That is the symbolism we see in the gifts of the Magi. We cannot say to what extent they, at that time, understood the symbolism that is so clear to us now, as we look back at their gifts to the Christ Child. Perhaps they just wanted to give the infant Jesus the most special gifts they could bring from their homeland.
Having been warned by God in a dream, the Magi did not return to Herod in Jerusalem. They took a different route home, and the Christ Child was protected from the murderous wrath of Herod.
The escape to Egypt
Matthew chapter 2, verses 13-18
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Bethlehem was about a two-hour journey from Jerusalem. So we may assume that the Magi arrived there on the same day they had spoken to Herod. It is possible that they left Bethlehem that same night, just as Joseph and Mary and the Christ Child departed before morning. So in the morning the Magi and Joseph’s little family were simply gone. No one in Bethlehem could tell where they were because no one knew.
After all the trouble and suffering the Israelites had endured in Egypt before the Exodus, it might seem like a strange place for Joseph and Mary to go with the Christ Child. But it was not strange at all. First of all, we need to realize that Egypt had been a traditional place of refuge. Abraham had gone to Egypt during a time of famine (Genesis chapter 12, verse 10). Jacob and his family of 70 souls took refuge in Egypt for the same reason (Genesis chapter 46), and they became a mighty nation there. They remained in Egypt until God led them out under Moses some four hundred years later. Jeroboam fled to Egypt when Solomon tried to kill him (1st Kings chapter 11, verse 40), and Uriah also fled to Egypt (Jeremiah chapter 26, verses 21-23).
There were many Jews in Egypt at this time, so Mary and Joseph could feel quite at home and secure there. They probably used the costly gifts from the Magi to finance their journey and their stay in Egypt.
Furthermore, Matthew informs us that the flight to Egypt (and the return to the land of Israel) fulfilled a prophecy of Hosea (chapter 11, verse 1). God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, and their exodus foreshadowed the calling of God’s Son from Egypt. Matthew directly states that Hosea was not only recording an event in Israel’s history; he was also foretelling an event in the life of God’s Son, the Messiah.
When King Herod realized that the Magi were not coming back, he reacted in a way typical of his murderous reign. According to the report of the Magi concerning the time they first saw the special star, Herod calculated how old the Christ Child might be. Six months or so seems reasonable, although it is impossible to be certain about his age. At any rate, Herod gave himself plenty of leeway when he commanded his soldiers to kill all the baby boys in and around Bethlehem up to two years old. Since Bethlehem was a small town, we may estimate that the total number slain was about 15 or 20. These victims of Herod are often called the innocents (not that they were sinless, but they surely had not committed any crime worthy of death).
Herod’s heinous crime reminds us of the ongoing deliberate and systematic destruction of thousands upon thousands of unborn children by abortion in our own day. Is this not an even greater crime? Herod perceived a real threat to his own authority when he committed his crime, and he may have reasoned that it would be better to sacrifice 15 or 20 children than to permit a bloody revolution to take place when this “newborn king” would attempt to seize the throne some years later. Many of our fellow citizens murder their unborn children as a matter of convenience, and the laws of our country permit it. They insist that they are being kinder and more considerate to their children than they would be if they allowed the birth of unwanted children or children for whose needs they might not be able to provide. Selfishness can make murder seem like a good deed.
The slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem was also the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Matthew quotes Jeremiah chapter 31, verse 15. Ramah was five miles north of Jerusalem, on the border of Israel. It was the place where Jewish captives had been assembled for deportation to Babylon (Jeremiah chapter 40, verse 1). Rachel was Jacob’s favorite wife, childless for years, finally the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. She died in childbirth. Rachel weeping for her children represented all the Jewish mothers who wept over Israel’s tragedy in the days of Jeremiah. She also typifies the grieving mothers at Bethlehem, as Matthew points out.
The return to Nazareth
Matthew chapter 2, verses 19-23
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”
It may have been only a matter of a few months that Joseph and Mary and the Christ Child remained in Egypt. Herod died about Easter time 4 B.C. The Jewish historian Josephus in his Antiquities reports that Herod “died of . . . ulcerated entrails, putrefied and maggot-filled organs, constant convulsions, foul breath, and neither physician nor warm baths led to recovery.” So Joseph could safely take his family home. When he heard that Archelaus ruled in place of his father Herod, he went back to Nazareth in Galilee.
We cannot point to any specific passage in the Old Testament prophets calling the Messiah a Nazarene. Yet Matthew clearly states that certain of the prophets had foretold this. The most natural explanation would seem to be that more than one prophet had made such a statement, and this was common knowledge among the Jews, even if this was not directly recorded anywhere in the Old Testament Scriptures.
To be called a Nazarene was not a compliment among the Jews. Nazareth was an undistinguished place. When Philip found Nathanael and told him that they had found the Messiah in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael’s response was, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John chapter 1, verse 46). Nathanael was familiar with Nazareth. He was from Cana, a few miles south of there. The fact that Jesus was called a Nazarene is an indication of his lowliness and humiliation. Pontius Pilate also intended it as sarcasm when he composed the superscription for Jesus’ cross: “JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS” (John chapter 19, verse 19).