Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife.
The narrative of the gospel given by divine inspiration through Matthew is especially for the Jews. The importance of the historical event considered in this passage is the clear revelation that the man Jesus, born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth, is also very God. He is Jesus, the Savior. He is the promised Messiah. He is Immanuel, God with us. Matthew’s narrative has just given the genealogy of this child of Mary (1-18), showing clearly that He is a descendant of Abraham and David. But He is also identified by the angel as the Savior (“Jesus”) and as God (“Immanuel”).
The greatest joy for every humbled sinner is the knowledge that he is saved from the punishment he knows he deserves for his sins and sinfulness. So, at the very beginning of his gospel narrative Matthew informs us that the angel identifies the infant in Mary’s womb as “Jesus.” The angel goes on to declare that this name means that this baby came to save His people from their sins. This is the message of great joy to all peoples.
Our text describes the history of Joseph and Mary’s engagement. “Espousal” or “betrothal” is a legal promise and commitment to marry. It is more than the concept of engagement familiar to those who live in the United States. A set time would take place between the espousal and the wedding ceremony—often so that a house could be built for the married couple. This period of time ended with the wedding ceremony. No sexual union was permitted prior to the wedding ceremony, even though the espousal was such a strong commitment. In light of this, we can well imagine how very surprised Joseph must have been when he learned that Mary was “with child.”
Joseph showed a great deal of maturity when he “thought on these things” (20). This means that he turned them over in his mind, struggling under the burden of his thoughts. He did not immediately talk about her condition with others. Nor did he immediately rush at her with charges of sin. Instead, he “thought on these things.”
From the narrative we can conclude that Mary had not told Joseph that she had been visited by the angel Gabriel, who told her that she would conceive a child by means of the Holy Spirit (). From Joseph’s perspective, his beloved and betrothed was pregnant. His human nature could only think the worst: she had been unfaithful to him and to God.
Joseph is identified as “a just man” (19), meaning that he was regenerated and godly. As such, he grieved for what he thought Mary had done to God and to himself. Additionally, as a godly man he knew that God’s law called for one of two options for one who was pregnant prior to the wedding ceremony. One, he could make a public example of her, which would require that she be stoned (). Or he could put her away privately, that is, set her aside and break the betrothal. His love for Mary did not react in anger out of personal hurt, so he was “minded to put her away privily.”
While Joseph was contemplating what to do, the angel appeared to him in a dream (20b).
As was customary when glorious angels appeared to sinful man, so this angel immediately said, “Fear not.” This came as a command to Joseph. This command is from God through the angel to His children. You see, there is reason for every sinner to be afraid before the holy God. By nature man cannot stand before the glory shining forth from God’s holiness. So when God displays His glory through an angel, sinful man is very much afraid. This is true also for God’s beloved children. But they are told that they have no reason to be afraid when He displays His glory to them. What a blessed mercy to be told “fear not” when confronted with divine glory! The relationship God has established with His people is of such a forgiving and loving nature that there is no reason for them to be afraid.
The angel continues, “Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife.” God declares to Joseph that he does not have to make her a public example, nor does he have to put her away privately! Instead he should take her into his house and shield her from a society that would say that she was immoral. The angel graciously explains why Joseph must go forward and take Mary as his wife: “that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.” Mary had not sinned. The child she is carrying has no earthly, human father. Rather, by means of the work of the Holy Spirit, God has conceived this child within the virgin Mary.
This message from the angel gives to Joseph and to us the knowledge that the child Mary was carrying can be and is the Savior (Jesus), because He is God (Immanuel). God the Holy Spirit conceived this child—thus the child is God. And without ceasing to be God or becoming less than God, He is God in human flesh. He is not just a good man, a great man, a sinless man, but He is God and man! This is a wonder greater than creation, more amazing than the ten plagues or any other miracle recorded in Scripture. It is the greatest miraculous work of God. The child Mary is carrying is truly God and truly man, so whatever can be said of God and of man (without sin) can be said of this baby.
The fact that this child is both very man and very God is a truth one must believe in order to be saved unto eternal life. If we do not believe that Jesus is God’s only begotten Son, then we perish, condemned and without eternal life (John 3:16-18). The value of the suffering and death to be endured by this baby lies in His being God. The cornerstone of redemption is found in this baby’s Person. It is the greatest wonder of God’s grace that He gave His divine Son, and that the Son willingly put Himself in the place of those sinners who are “His people.”
The wonder of grace is that He is “Jesus,” that is, “Jehovah salvation” (21). “Jehovah salvation” means that He will accomplish the work to “save His people from their sins.” To save means that He delivers them from the greatest evil—there is nothing worse than my sin and my sinfulness. And He provides us with the greatest good— a sweet relationship with God Himself. This marvelous and gracious work of salvation He will accomplish for “His people.” He saves, but He does not save all—only His people, that is, those given Him of His Father before the foundation of the world (). He will do all that is necessary to earn salvation—earning both forgiveness and righteousness. He will work that salvation in them, and He will keep them in that salvation.
That Jesus saves His people from their sins explains the manger and the cross, for He stood in their place, bearing the penalty of their sin. Their violations of the most high majesty of God made it necessary that He bear the penalty for all of their sin.
The great joy of Christmas is the fact that He came precisely to deal with the reality of our sin. Christmas is realizing that God humbled Himself to become complete man because the sins of His people required that. Payment had to be made and He became man just to do so.
Joseph immediately “did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife” (24). Joseph believed the angel and obeyed. He might not have comprehended everything the angel said, but Joseph took it to be truth and did as he was commanded.
God graciously worked in Joseph the same that He works in us—the ability to believe the humanly impossible and to hold for truth what God says. This is the only reason Joseph could, without hesitation, arise and obey. Only the power of grace can take the self-centered mind of every man (naturally filled with suspicion and doubt) and enable it to believe, to lean not on its own understanding but to acknowledge God in all his ways.
God performs this wonder in our hearts and minds in this season when our attention is again drawn to the birth of Jesus. May we believe and obey as Joseph did. May we see the baby in the manger and worship Him with renewed faith. Let us receive the good tidings of great joy and give glory to God in the highest!