Today Matthew 1:18-25 is before us. And unlike the other gospels, Matthew tells us of the birth of Christ as it’s experienced by Joseph. There are four headings today, see first…
The Genesis (v18a)
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.”
You might be wondering why I chose to title this message what I have, or why I put this first heading the way I did. What does this text have to do with Genesis? Short answer: EVERYTHING! Here’s the longer answer: this first phrase of v18 might seem like a transitional moment in chapter 1, just intended to move us out of the genealogy and into the birth story. Well, part of that is right because it is a transition out of the genealogy into the birth story, but it’s so much more! In Matthew’s original Greek text, v18 reads like this, “Now, the genesis of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” The word birth isn’t what’s there at all. It’s a rare form of the word ‘becoming’ Matthew uses here to teach us about the Son of God becoming true and full man. Matthew could have said ‘birth’ here but he didn’t, he chose the word genesis. Why, then, did he put it this way? Why use the word Genesis to refer to the birth of Christ? Perhaps as soon as we ask the question, the answer almost immediately pops up. As God brought order from disorder and light from darkness in the creation of the world in the beginning, so too God, now in the birth of Christ…is once again bringing order into disorder, beauty into bleakness, and light into darkness. And just as it was the Spirit who hovered over the darkness of deeps back at creation, who do we find ever so prominent and at work in the birth story here? The Holy Spirit Himself, who hovers over or overshadows, Mary in the conception of Jesus.
There is so much to see in the first phrase of v18 Church. Held in it is nothing less than the culmination of all the promises God made in the OT, coming to pass in a way we would not believe unless God had told us of it, the birth of a baby boy. Or I could put it like this. In Christ’s birth, God is doing Genesis work, a new work, re-creation work, that is so colossal and so great that the world itself and all in it will never be the same.
This is how Matthew begins his birth story. And that alone, this new Genesis to see, tells us much about what to expect in the life of this baby boy. But how surprising to see it then, that this new work of God begins in scandal. That’s our next heading, see it in v18b-19.
The Scandal (v18b-19)
“When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”
See the situation as it is. Joseph and Mary were betrothed, which was a kind of engagement, or pledge to be married back in their day. It was a far more serious and weighty kind of engagement than we do. Today you can break off an engagement and other than heartbreak there’s not really much damage. Back then betrothal, which lasted a year, was so weighty that the couple, who was already referred to as husband and wife, could only end it with an official divorce. Lesson? Betrothal was binding.
Now, to highlight the scandal of these verses, allow me to re-read v18-19 without the phrase, “…from the Holy Spirit.”“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…And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”
Sense the scandal of it all from Joseph’s perspective? We, as the readers of Matthew, are told the child in Mary is “…from the Holy Spirit…” but at this point in the story Joseph doesn’t know that yet. That’s the one detail he’s not told. All he knows is that Mary is pregnant, which of course, causes problems for their betrothal. So not knowing the full story, Joseph interprets the pregnancy to mean Mary has been unfaithful to him, which then, is what leads him to desire a divorce.
That’s their situation. We so often read stories like this in the Bible as if their just short little snap shots of people’s lives that are far removed from us, without pausing to consider how much is left unsaid between the lines. Think of it, what we just read is only a verse and a half, yet can you imagine the pain and anguish this caused Joseph, especially since he didn’t know the full story yet? How would you feel if you were in his position? Crushed, betrayed, humiliated, embarrassed, angry, jealous…all the above? Can you feel the scandal of this? We might think anger would be Joseph’s first response, but for a woman to become pregnant during betrothal, and pregnant with someone else’s child, in this culture shame and embarrassment and humiliation would have likely been more prominent because it’s so scandalous. But maybe, we reading this story in our day don’t feel the scandal here because today something like this wouldn’t be a big deal, because it’s now normal for couples to get pregnant outside of marriage. It simply wasn’t like that back then. Their day wasn’t a live as you like, define your own truth, I’ll have it my way kind of thing. Their Jewish culture was a highly moral culture, at least on the outside, where God’s Law largely defined what people did and did not do. So while this wouldn’t make many blush today, it would’ve immediately been seen in their day as appalling, shocking, disgraceful, and out of bounds.
Which is likely why Joseph decides to divorce her. But unlike most other men who would be eager to drag their betrothed wife through the mud publicly because of something like this, v19 makes it plain that Joseph isn’t like other men. He’s not only a just man, knowing what the Law of God requires and desires to see it carried out, it also says he was unwilling to put her to shame. Which means Joseph was a man of compassion. So, in end of v19 we see Joseph making up his mind. He will divorce her quietly.
One more thing before we move on. Why is all this such a big deal? Because of what we read a few verses before our passage today began. Near the end of the genealogy in v16 we see that it’s Joseph, not Mary, who is the descendant of Abraham. Joseph is the one in line of Abraham and David. Meaning, if Joseph walks away and divorces Mary, the child in Mary’s womb will not be a son of Abraham or David.
Thankfully, we’re not left in suspense, v20 quickly comes in and shows us something of wonder.
The Spirit (v20)
“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.”
The decision to divorce Mary wasn’t an easy one for Joseph. v20 tells us he considered these things, probably as he was lying in bed after making the decision to divorce her and wondering if it was the right thing to do. Well, he was considering so deeply, he fell asleep, and while sleeping he had a dream. Not just any dream, but a divinely sent dream. An angel of the Lord appeared to him with a message, “Joseph, son of David (there’s his lineage coming into view again) do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
Now at last, Joseph knows why Mary is pregnant. She has not been unfaithful, the child doesn’t belong to any other man on earth in fact. No, the baby was conceived in her by the Holy Spirit. On one hand this must have been relieving for Joseph, he really could wed Mary. But on the other hand, it must have been mysterious, the child is from the Holy Spirit? We’ll see more of what the angel told Joseph in just a moment. For now, do not miss this. The eternal Son of God became true and full Man by the work of Holy Spirit. Or as one preacher of old put it, “The Son is not the Son without the Spirit.” This is what many of our historic creeds and confessions say as well. The Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit…” The middle of the Nicene Creed also says it, “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ…God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God…for us men and for our salvation He came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary…”
So remember, it was the Holy Spirit who hovered over the waters of creation and brought life and light in the darkness in Genesis 1. And it was the Holy Spirit who overshadowed Mary and conceived Christ the Son in her womb, so that He would be born of her. Divine Father, human mother, no wonder this Son is truly and fully God and Man at the same time. And no wonder later on in Scripture we read that it is the same Holy Spirit who causes Christ to be born in our hearts as we hear and believe the gospel. I think too often we go through the Christmas season giving thought only to the Son of God, and rightly so. Maybe we even think of the Father who, in great love, sent the Son to us, and rightly so. How often have we considered, enjoyed, and praised God for the Spirit? We ought to. Because without the Spirit Christmas wouldn’t have happened.
Let’s see the rest of the angel told Joseph. We’ve seen the Spirit, let’s now see our final heading…
The Son (v21-25)
“She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called His name Jesus.”
The angel’s final words to Joseph in v21 are instructions on what to name this child, “…you shall call His name Jesus…” But see also that His name tells us about His mission, “…for He will save His people from their sins.” But how exactly does His name disclose His mission? Well, the name Jesus, or in Hebrew Yeshua, is the same name as Joshua in the OT. And that the angel instructs Joseph to give this child that name is telling. Joshua was a great figure in Israel. In his youth he was unwilling to depart from the temple entrance because the glory of God captivated him, later on he bravely led the people into the promise land, and much later on he would lead Israel around the promise land cleaning house by making war on all those who had been dwelling there as God instructed. Through Joshua God led Israel out of the wilderness and into the promise land where Joshua would spend himself laboring so they would dwell securely. But as hard as he labored, many pagan nations remained in the promise land that would in time give Israel much trouble. So even in the promise land and ever after all Joshua’s effort sin still plagued God’s people.
That Joseph is instructed to give this child this same name is a large hint to Joseph, and to us reading these verses today, of what this child will do for God’s people. This new Joshua will lead God’s people into true security. How? By saving them, fully and finally, from their many sins. Notice it doesn’t say He’ll save them from Rome, which is what many of the people were looking for at that time. To get out from under Roman oppression and be free once again. No, Jesus saves from greater oppression, from a greater tyrant than Caesar, Jesus the greater Joshua saves from sin. How does He do this? Through His life, death, and resurrection.
Right here we see it don’t we, even before His birth?
Jesus saves us from our sin by taking our penalty of sin on Himself on the cross, dying in our place as our substitute, even though He never sinned.
Jesus saves us from our sin by taking the power and sting of death away not only by His own dying but by His rising back to life again.
And Jesus will save us from our sin when He returns to reign forevermore, destroy the very presence of sin once and for all, and make all sad things come untrue.
Jesus is the greater Joshua.
So let me ask. Anyone here struggle with sin? Anyone here plagued by sin? Anyone here feel shamed or embarrassed by sin? Anyone here angered by sin’s lingering grip on you? Anyone here feel guilty or rotten because of how much you sin? Anyone here fearful of hell because you think sin has got you so tight? Is anyone here honest enough to admit that there isn’t an eraser big enough to wipe away all the evil you’ve done? If so, I’m glad you’ve come today. The good news of Christmas is this: Jesus appeared to save from sin! So, if you don’t know yourself to be a sinner you can’t be saved by Jesus. In fact, being a sinner is the one thing required for being saved by Jesus. What hope for sinners is found here? This is Genesis work. Because long ago in Genesis 3:15 we read of the promise that one day a descendant of Eve will come and crush the deceiving serpent. Jesus is that descendant.
And as if it couldn’t get any better than this, keep on in the text. After the final words of the angel Matthew tells us more in v22-23. That all these events in v18-21 were the fulfillment of what God said to His people long ago through the prophet Isaiah. What did God say through Isaiah? To the wicked king Ahaz, God makes this known. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel.” Matthew goes back and pulls out this verse because he desires us to know that this child Joseph is to name Jesus is this long awaited child, who is also Immanuel meaning God With Us. This again is Genesis work. God was once with man, walking with our first parents in the cool of the day. But when sin entered in there began a division between the holy God and sinful man. And the history of the OT shows how God in grace set up rules and regulations to allow man to enter His presence for a brief time in the inner sanctum of the holy of holies. But, praise God, such times are over. Why? Because when Christ died on the cross, the veil tore. The veil that was hung to visibly display the separation between God and man, tore, from top to bottom. Meaning, the way to God is now open. For, in Christ God is with us once again, to save, to sanctify, to sustain, to satisfy, and to keep to the end.
It’s hard to know what Joseph knew about these things, or how this dream and the angel’s instructions landed on his soul. But we do see good things as the chapter ends in v24-25. Joseph wakes and immediately did as the angel had commanded him.
So Church, be in awe of the new Genesis work God is doing in Christ. Be in awe of the Spirit who conceived Christ in the virgin’s womb. Be in awe of this Christ who fully and truly God and Man came to save from sins and in Himself reunite God and man. And perhaps learn from Joseph, who turned away from his immediate conclusions and turned away from his concern about social stigma and what others would think about them to obey God, by marrying Mary and adopting this child as His own.
 Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Matthew: All Authority in Heaven and on Earth – Preaching the Word Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013), 40.
 Ibid., 41.
 Ibid., 46.
 R. C. Sproul, Matthew – Saint Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013), 24.
 Wolfhart Pannenburg, quoted in O’Donnell, Matthew, 43.
 J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Matthew (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 2015) 5.