Studi biblici/Matteo 1:18-25/Matthew 1:18-25

Da Tempo di Riforma.

Continuity and discontinuity in the birth of Jesus

A matter of revelation, but ...

The Gospels reports a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples, where Jesus asked them,"Who do people say that I am? [1]'. They consequently report to Him what were the different opinions then circulating about His identity. These were divergent views, more or less favorable opinions, and many of them rather fanciful. All of them were inconsistent with reality. To the question, then, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered Him on behalf of the whole group of disciples, confidently: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God". Peter, that way, clearly identified Jesus as the long awaited Messiah, the manifestation of God Himself in the flesh, who had came to redeem His people from their sins.

How did Peter come to this conclusion, balancing all the evidence and reaching, on that basis, the correct answer? Of course, Jesus had given them a lot of evidence of His identity and this had proved persuasive to Peter and the other disciples. Faced with the same evidence, not all of them were left so convinced. The deep conviction about the true identity of Jesus, after all, had and continues to have, a different origin. It is not so much a question of intelligence and more or less diligence in seeking out the truth.

The Evangelist Matthew continues this dialogue with the reply of Jesus himself in these words: "You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven!” [2].Understanding the true identity of Jesus on a personal level and drawing all the consequences is a matter of “revelation”. It is God who sovereignly reveals this to the heart and mind of an individual.

In order to lead a person to faith in Jesus, it is not wasted energy to present proofs and evidence about the identity of Jesus and reason upon it, namely to make use of “apologetics”. Of course, this evidence will not be decisive because there will always be those who want to stubbornly challenge with all sorts of arguments to the contrary, whatever the Bible presents. However, the presentation of many evidences about the identity of Jesus, is what God normally uses to call His elect to Himself. This is what the four evangelists are doing as they tell the story about the life and teaching of Jesus. Matthew and Luke find this evidence in the events concerning the birth of Jesus.

The story concerning the birth of Jesus is well known. To repeat this could be seen as a tedious exercise, devoid of particular interest and originality and, for the majority of our unbelieving contemporaries something which is mainly considered “a myth” or ancient fairy tale. These stories, however, are part of the evidence taken from the Word of God, that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Savior of the World. Through such evidence God opens the eyes and the mind to arouse faith, praise and gratitude. This is what Matthew does in the first chapter of his Gospel, when he speaks about the genealogy of Jesus, His virginal conception and the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning Him. Let’s consider today what we find in chapter 1, verses 18-25.

The Biblical Text

Birth of Jesus Christ. "Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way. While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph, her husband to be, was a righteous man, and because he did not want to disgrace her, he intended to divorce her privately. When he had contemplated 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 as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep he did what the angel of the Lord told him. He took his wife, but did not have marital relations with her until she gave birth to a son, whom he named Jesus." (Matthew 1:18-25).

Do you think that these events describing the birth of Jesus are odd or “impossibile” or possibly “naive”? Matthew records the supernatural birth of Jesus in order to further demonstrate His qualifications as the Messiah and King of Israel. He shows how the birth of Jesus was a unique and unrepeatable event, special as well as unique, as special and unique is the person and work of Christ. He would say to us “Do not look for precedents and do not expect such a thing will ever happen again! It happened in the way that I described because of the unique characteristics of the Lord Jesus. It could not have been otherwise. It happened, moreover, as the ancient prophets of Israel had announced, when they revealed how the eternal purposes of God concerning the coming of Christ, the focal point of human history, would have come true”.

Matthew, in fact, like all other writers of the New Testament, is constantly moving within the conceptual framework of Biblical revelation, which he always considered “authoritative”. We should also always do the same, rather than criticizing it, in the attempt to get rid of its categories, assuming different ones, namely ours, and on that basis, claiming to “interpret” the advent of Christ. Our tendency to consider as odd or impossible the events described, only manifests our guilty presumption not to explain the facts that the Scriptures describes, instead bending and adapting them to our prejudices. WE should ask “What does this text mean?”. Let us see in detail.

A beautiful promise in tatters?

"Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way. While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit" (18).

We have here a betrothed couple in Israel who, to their great surprise, find themselves involved in events of historic significance, for the whole of humanity. They do not belong to the kind of people who, in the categories of this world, "make the history”. But God chooses them just for that reason, to repudiate the world and its values. Mary, most likely, like most brides of Israel in those times, was very young, maybe even 13 or 14 years, while her bridegroom was older. More than this we cannot know and should not try to speculate, further. They are two ordinary young people, certainly faithful believers, fully embedded in the Israelite faith and culture of that time. They are not yet living together in a conjugal household union. It happens, however, something that seems to Joseph the worst thing that could ever have happen. Mary finds herself pregnant and Joseph is not responsible. We can well imagine what was going through his mind when Joseph was informed of the matter. Matthew, who tells us these facts, expressly states that the conception was due to a direct creative intervention of God. “Because Joseph, her husband to be, was a righteous man, and because he did not want to disgrace her, he intended to divorce her privately." (19)

Matthew describes the events from the perspective of Joseph, a direct descendant of the ancient King David. Joseph is called "husband" of Mary, because in those times, he was considered such since the time of the official engagement, even though they were not living together.

Joseph feels betrayed by Mary. So he aims to dissolve the engagement privately, not having anything to do with her, anymore. In the ancient Israel, a promise of marriage was so binding that dissolving it required a certificate of divorce. Even the death of one of the partners made ​​the other a widow or widower. Normally, the official engagement was followed by a waiting period of one year before the marriage was consummated. During that year, the promise could be broken, only by an act of divorce.

Joseph, being, as Matthew states, was "a righteous man". He could not allow the pregnancy of his girlfriend to go unchallenged, without taking action as it implied that Mary had apparently been unfaithful to the marriage vows, thus violating the Mosaic Law. Joseph had three choices:

(1) to report the infidelity of Mary and thus exposing her to the risk of being stoned to death [3] (which was however rare in the first century). Probably she would have to suffer the shame of a public trial.

(2) A second option was to grant her a divorce privately, in which case Joseph was only to deliver her a written certificate of divorce in the presence of two witnesses [4].

(3) The third option was to remain her fiancée and not to divorce Mary, but this alternative would have meant for Joseph breaking the Mosaic Law [5] ignoring its requirements. Probably Joseph feared the consequences of his decision to divorce Mary in public. Joseph, consequently, decides to divorce her privately.

This choice would preserve his righteousness (the compliance with the Law) and would allow him to show compassion.

A decisive revelation

"When he had contemplated 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 as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. "(20)

Angels, special messengers of God, are not an ordinary presence in human life, but they are involved in key moments in the history of redemption [6]."Are they not all ministering spirits, sent out to serve those who will inherit salvation?" (Hebrews 1:14). They may appear with a human form, or reveal themselves by other means, such as, for example, in dreams, which often have a revelatory value. Matthew emphasizes four times the divine nature of this intervention in his prologue [7].

Calling Joseph "son of David" intimates to Joseph the meaning of the announcement that he is going to receive. His Davidic descent was not accidental. It presupposed a "historical responsibility" that no one in the family had forgotten, because God had promised that from that particular lineage the Messiah would be born. Anyway, Joseph family status is significant and linked to the first verse of Matthew and the subsequent genealogy. It continues, in fact, the theme of the Davidic Messiah. The message states: "...because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.", that is to say, it is an extraordinary fact and we should not look for other explanations. Christian theology calls it generally "virgin birth", but it is technically rather a "virgin conception", because Mary was a virgin in the conception of Jesus. The Birth of Jesus was completely normal. In every case, the idea of Roman Catholicism about a supposed “perpetual virginity” of Mary, reflects speculation of a much later date which does not find any support in the biblical text. This doctrine established itself on the basis of religious and philosophical assumptions which are foreign to biblical faith and would have contributed the raised and undue veneration of Mary.

The angel, then, announces the sovereign prerogative of God to give himself a name to the child: "She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. "(21).Joseph carries out the will of God by giving to the child the name Jesus at the appropriate time. (25) The Greek form of the name Iesous, which, translated into English becomes Jesus,is the same Hebrew Joshua, which means "Yahweh saves." It was a common name among the Jews of Palestine in the first century. Jesus will be known mostly as "Jesus of Nazareth."

The angel explanation of the reason for this name is a biblical quotation from the Psalms: "He will deliver Israel from all the consequences of their sins"(Psalm 130:8). Jews were waiting for the Messiah as a political saviour and redeemer from sin, but not a Messiah who had given His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28) that is to save His people from the consequences of their sins, or, as we would say, saving those who are entrusted to Him from the condemnation that their sins deserve.

"Save" here is a holistic concept and that is the way we should also understand it. First, salvation is for us a past event: it was done by the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. Second, salvation is a present reality because it iinvolves those who entrust themselves to Him, manifesting itself with with concrete consequences. Third, salvation is a future event, because it will be completed, "consummated" by Jesus Christ at the time of His return in glory.

Matthew here focuses on what is central to the concept of salvation, that is, salvation from sin, because sin in the Biblical perspective sin is the ultimate cause of any other calamity which we suffer. This verse, therefore, directs the reader to the fundamental purpose of the coming of Jesus and the nature of the kingdom inaugurated by the King Messiah, heir to the throne of David.

An event announced

Matthew, finally, draws particular attention to how the mode of the Saviour’s birth was not "new" but had been foretold by the prophets.

"This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” (22-23)

This is a quotation from Isaiah 7:14 "For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel". This is an allusion to the text (in the LXX):"It will spill into Judah, flooding and engulfing, as it reaches to the necks of its victims. He will spread his wings out over your entire land, O Immanuel.” ... Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted! Issue your orders, but they will not be executed! For God is with us! "(Isaiah 8:8,10).

For Matthew, as for all the writers of the New Testament, the ancient prophecies are the Word of God. The Lord speaks to by the prophet. "for no prophecy was ever borne of human impulse; rather, men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (2 Peter 1:21),"Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness " (2 Timothy 3:16).

This is a prophecy difficult to interpret. The first problem concerns the meaning of “virgin” in the Greek Bible (parthenos). It usually refers to a literal virgin [8]. In the New Testament it always has this meaning. That Matthew meant it in this way is clear, both from the ordinary meaning of the word and from the context [9].The second problem is the meaning of the word in Isaiah 7:14, translated in the NET Bible as "young woman" ('alma), (i.e. a young woman of marriageable age.) The Hebrew word implies virginity and any use of this term in the Old Testament requires or allows the meaning of "virgin." [10] That's why the Septuagint renders it as "virgin" and this fact is taken by Matthew for granted.

There may be three solutions. Isaiah had predicted that a young woman of marriageable age would have a baby at the time of prophecy and would have called him Emmanuel. It happened in the time of Isaiah and Jesus fulfills this prophecy in the sense that a true virgin would give birth and he was "God with us." This concept is typological. The child at the time of Isaiah was to be a prototype (an illustration as understood by God) of the child born in the time of Joseph. This is the best interpretation. A second interpretation sees Isaiah predicting the virgin birth of a child at that time by the name of Immanuel. Jesus fulfills this prophecy in the fact that his mother, when she conceived Him was a virgin and He was "God with us." This view is called the "double fulfillment." The problem is that it requires two virginal births, one at the time of Isaiah and that of Jesus. A third perspective sees Isaiah predicting the birth of Jesus as not something that will take place in his own time. Only Jesus fulfills this prophecy. The problem here is that, in his time, the king Ahaz receives no sign, just a prophecy. In Scripture, the “signs” were visible and immediate assurances that what God had predicted would be certainly happen.

In relation to the name “Immanuel”, nobody in the time of Isaiah or in the New Testament carried it explicitly, but it can only be an announcement of the fact that, with Jesus, it accurately describes who He is [11]. Jesus is "God who saves" and "God with us. Two key texts at the beginning and at the end of the Gospel according to Matthew are strategic:"Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us" (1:23), "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age "(28:20). In the Person of Jesus, the Messiah, His Son, God has come to dwell until the end of time with His people, the church, thus ushering the era of eschatological salvation.

No Ambiguity: Jesus comes from God

Our text ends by reiterating both passive human agreement in the conception of Jesus, a fact beyond suspicion, and the rights of the Davidic Jesus, through adoption. When Joseph awoke from sleep he did what the angel of the Lord told him. He took his wife, but did not have marital relations with her until she gave birth to a son, whom he named Jesus." (24-25) That "he did not have marital relations with her" translates the original, "he knew her not." "Knowing" both in greek and in Hebrew is frequently a euphemism for "sexual intercourse".

The angel’s instructions lead Joseph to change his mind and he decides not to divorce Mary privately, but he continues with their engagement and eventually consummation of their marriage. When Joseph called the child “Jesus”, as the angel had commanded him, he took him legally as his son. In other words, Jesus born of Mary, but without Joseph being the natural father became “son of David”, because Joseph legally adopted Him in his family line. The adoption in Israel was more informal than formal [12]. Clearly, according to Matthew, the “legal” male lineage alone, counts.

It is debated whether the virginal conception of Jesus is theologically necessary, or if it was just the fulfillment of a promise. What here is clear, beyond all the speculation is that Matthew shows how the Person of Jesus Christ is both human (because born of Mary) and divine (as generated by the Holy Spirit). Had Jesus only been (completely) human, he could maybe have a legal right to the throne of David, but he could not have been the one who would save his people from sin, redeeming them. However, he is the One of whom Moses and the prophets had spoken, and to which all past events of God on earth were pointing.

Conclusion

The biblical text for today, therefore, is not a mythological fable as many today seem to believe. It cannot lend itself to a lot of speculation on the marginal or irrelevant topics that have been made ​​on this subject, during the history of the church.

It is not intended to promote “virginity” as a condition that is supposedly morally superior to others. It is not about the virtues and the status of Mary. Its goal is not even so much as to explain the fact that Jesus was and remains totally devoid of sin. The stories about the birth of Jesus that we find in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and in particular, the events narrated in our text, provide Jesus of Nazareth’s credentials as the Christ, the Saviour of the world. It fact, through facts such as this text shows, God opens our eyes and minds so that we rely with greater certainty on Christ. It lead us in praising God with more and more with gratitude for the extraordinary grace that He granted us in Him.

This text:

1) leads us to consider the advent of the Saviour, and therefore in him the grace of salvation, as an expression of exclusive sovereign initiative of God. As those who come to faith in Christ, so Jesus, Christ was not born "of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man," but born of God (John 1:12). He does not come "naturally", as an expression of the human will, nor He it an "accident", but everything happens according to God’s eternal purposes, the terms of which were foretold in the Scriptures. They are the fulfillment of what was paved in Israel during its history.

2) shows us how "the 'new man "(and therefore the new creation) is at the same time something that is both continuity and discontinuity with the old man. Jesus is born in part as any other human being. But unlike us, He is so much in communion with God as to be without sin. "Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in their humanity, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil),... For surely his concern is not for angels, but he is concerned for Abraham’s descendants. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people" (Hebrews 2:14-17). Similarly He regenerates our lives, takes "the existing material" and makes us as something new.

3) points out that the Salvation brought by the Messiah has to do mainly with the problem of sin. Jesus, the Christ, has come to solve the problem of sin in our lives. He is for us first of all "Jesus". To Joseph, God says,"thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins."But he is also Immanuel, "... which translated means, 'God with us'." God has joined us to Christ, so that being spiritually regenerated, we could go back to being in communion with Him forever.

"To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be praise, honour, glory, and ruling power forever and ever!" (Revelation 5:13).

Paolo Castellina, December 19, 2013

Footnotes

  • [1] Mark 8:27.
  • [2] Matthew 16:17.
  • [3]"If a virgin is engaged to a man and another man meets her in the city and has sexual relations with her, you must bring the two of them to the gate of that city and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry out though in the city and the man because he violated his neighbor’s fiancée; in this way you will purge 45 evil from among you"(Deuteronomy 22:23-24).
  • [4] Numbers 5:11-31.
  • [5] 'If a man commits adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbor's wife, the' adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death "(Leviticus 20:10).
  • [6] Genesis 16:7-14, 22:11-18, Exod. 3:2-4:16, et al.
  • [7] Matthew 1:20, 24; 2:13, 19.
  • [8] With the exception of Genesis 34:3 in the LXX)" And he was fond of Dina , daughter of Jacob, and he loved the girl and spoke to her heart. ")
  • [9] Cf. verse 18, 20, 25
  • [10] Genesis 24:43, Exodus 2:8, Psalm 68:25, Proverbs. 30:19, Song 1:3, 6:8, Isaiah 7:14.
  • [11] Cfr. John 1:14,18; Matthew 28:20
  • [12] Genesis 15:2, 17:12-13, 48:5, Exodus 2:10; 1 Kings 11:20; Esther 2:7, Luke 2:23.