by Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources
Scripture: St. Matthew 1: 18-25
Psalm 80-1-7, 16-18
Our text should be read with 1:1-17 in mind. They are intentionally connected by Matthew. Our lessons begins: "The genesis of Jesus Christ was like this" (v. 18). Mt 1:1 reads: "A book of the genesis of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham." Matthew could have used other words for "genealogy" or "birth," but he used this word, which is also the Greek title of the first book of scriptures. Similar wording is in the LXX at Gn 2:4 "This is the book of the genesis of heaven and earth;" and in 5:1 "This is the book of the genesis of human beings. In the day God made Adam, according to the image of God he made him." I think Matthew intended a connection between these two sections of chapter 1 and with the first book of scriptures. This is a new beginning -- a new creation.
Throughout verses 1-16a, Matthew has used egennesen 39 times (aorist, active of gennao, which means: when used of the male role = "to beget," or "to become the father of"; of the female role: "to give birth"). In 16b the grammar changes. He does not write, "Joseph begat Jesus," which we might expect after 39 times; but rather he uses egennethe (aorist, passive of gennao) "Joseph the husband of Mary from whom was born Jesus the one being called Christ." We already have a hint that there is something different about this birth from all those that went before.
Richard Jensen (Preaching Matthew's Gospel) says about these opening verses:
Genealogies were one of the chief ways that oral people understood issues of identity. We can be sure that people read and heard this first chapter of Matthew with excited anticipation. Matthew opens his Gospel in this exciting way! [p. 32]
Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham
An emphasis that continues in these opening verses is that Jesus is the Messiah (christos). This word occurs in vv. 1, 16, 17, & 18. Without underlines or boldface, emphasis in ancient writings was often indicated by repetition.
From what I've read, there was no standard expectations of a Messiah. The word, messiah, means "anointed" (as does christos). In the OT, kings, priests, and prophets were anointed. It was a sign of commissioning or being set apart to serve God. Perhaps the strangest use of this title is with Cyrus in Isaiah 45:1: "Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus...." Cyrus was Persian, not Jewish. Isaiah declares that Cyrus doesn't even know God (45:4, 5), but that his lack of knowledge (or belief) will not stop God setting him apart and using him for God's purposes.
Calling Jesus, "the Messiah," simply indicates that God will use him for some special purpose.
Jensen [pp. 32-33] suggests three other themes introduced in the genealogy. Since through Abraham, the first name in the list, God promised to bless all families on earth, there is a hint of the universal mission that also concludes the gospel -- going to "all nations".
The unique inclusion of the women in the list both suggest the universal mission, since "most of them are Gentiles," but he also notes that "three of these women have been involved in scandalous behavior: incest, prostitution, and adultery." This suggests: "God's grace clearly includes persons such as these. God's grace clearly includes sinners like you and me."
However, J. Andrew Overman (Church and Community in Crisis: The gospel According to Matthew) takes a different approach to the women.
First, these women are not portrayed as sinners in the stories that make the relatively famous in Israelite history. On the contrary, Ruth, Tamar, and Rahab are heroines. And surely if he was looking for dramatic sins and sinners Matthew could have done better....
What is common among these women is that all except Rahab had unusual births or birth stories associated with them. Also, these women through their actions kept the royal line of Israel alive....
All these women, one could say, saved Israel.... the mention of the women culminating in Mary is probably less a scandal and more a potent reminder to Matthew's audience of the lengths to which God has gone to save the people of God in the past and has recently acted similarly in the person and story of Jesus, messiah, son of David, son of Abraham. [pp. 32-33]
Carter (Matthew and the Margins) has a similar interpretation of the five women in the list:
All five situations are subversive "over-against" prevailing norms, marginal to the patriarchal line and structures. God's actions are not contained by or bound to these structures. God breaks them open to work on the margins. The margins are not God-forsaken or cursed, but crucial to God's purposes. [p. 60]
Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew) states about the four women, their "primary common link is their Gentile ancestry" (p. 79). He goes on to say in contrast to the comments above:
Not all commentators regard these women as representative Gentiles. Many commentators instead link them to charges of either sinfulness or irregular births, suggesting that their names prepare readers of the scandal of the virgin birth in 1:18-25 or counter slanders of Mary's infidelity; as God vindicated these women of old, he would also vindicate Mary. The "irregular" birth interpretation is possible (and not necessarily inconsistent with the interpretation of the Gentile mission above, but if that were his main point, why would he choose these four women over Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, whose wombs God opened? the latter are more prominent and would provide better examples of "irregular" births in the miraculous sense he intends for the virgin birth. The scandal interpretation is more problematic. If Matthew were defending Mary against slanders of infidelity, why would he choose Tamar and Bathsheba, both of whom did in fact act immorally by the standards of his Jewish contemporaries? [p. 79]
Keener concludes his comments on this section with:
The Bible that accepted David's mixed race also implied it for the messianic King: Matthew thus declares that the Gentiles were never an after-thought in God's plan, but had been part of his work in history from the beginning. One who traces Matthew's treatment of Gentiles through the Gospel, from the Magi who sought Jesus in chapter 2 through the concluding commission to disciple the nations in 28:19, will understand Matthew's point in emphasizing this. Matthew exhorts his readers that as much as Jesus is connected with the heritage of Israel, he is for all peoples as well, and his disciples have a responsibility to let everyone know about him. [pp. 80-81]
Finally, Jensen suggests that in v. 17, Matthew indicates that "history has a plan. God is in charge of that plan. All of history comes to fruition and fulfillment in the birth of a baby boy."
FULFILLMENT OF SCRIPTURES
Besides beginning his book with a look back at Old Testament characters, Matthew repeatedly, in the first four chapters, quotes Old Testament verses, mostly to show that Jesus fulfills them. One reason, I believe, that Matthew was placed first in the New Testament (even though it probably was not written first) is his stronger connection to the Old Testament through such quotations. In some ways, he serves as a good bridge from the old to the new.
HOW JESUS IS WHO HE IS
Besides telling us "who" Jesus is with these titles, these texts also indicate "how" Jesus is "who" he is.
He is "son of David" because of his genealogy -- but Joseph didn't "begat" him! The Davidic descendancy is not transferred through natural paternity but through legal paternity. "By naming the child, Joseph acknowledges him as his own. The Jewish position on this is lucidly clear and is dictated by the fact that sometimes it is difficult to determine who begot a child biologically. Since normally a man will not acknowledge and support a child unless it is his own, the law prefers to base paternity on the man's acknowledgment. The Mishna Baba Bathra 8:6 states the principle: 'If a man says, "This is my son," he is to be believed.' Joseph, by exercising the father's right to name the child (cf. Luke 1:60-63), acknowledges Jesus and thus becomes the legal father of the child." [Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, p. 139 -- I recommend this 700+ page book for those who want a good, even-handed approach to this topic. He also has a two-volume set on The Death of the Messiah.].
THE VIRGINAL CONCEPTION
Jesus is "Son of God" because of his unique conception. Brown (The Birth of the Messiah) prefers the phrase "virginal conception" over "virgin birth." The issue, as he says, is not the "manner of Jesus' birth or how he came forth from the womb, but the manner of his conception." [p. 517].
In some circles, the virginity of Mary has become a benchmark for orthodoxy -- and as long as the Creeds are official statements, "born of the virgin Mary" is the confession and teaching of our Church. However, I don't believe that this was major issue in the first century. I don't believe that "proving" the virgin birth is primarily what our passage is about, but since it is such a "hot" issue now, it needs to be addressed. I share some of the thoughts from Brown's book with some of my own musings.
Since the birth stories from Matthew and Luke seem to come from two different sources, and both include the virginal conception, it must have pre-dated these two writings. Where did the idea come from? It did not come from Isaiah 7:14 because neither in the Hebrew ("the young woman with child") nor in the LXX ("the virgin will have in her womb") refer to a miraculous conception. In addition, this "sign" was directed specifically to Ahaz as an event during his lifetime. Note that the NRSV supplies the verb "is" -- "the young woman is with child". (The NIV uses "will be".) Also the use of the definite article, "the young woman" suggests that Isaiah was referring to someone whose identity was known to Ahaz. Without the influence of Jesus' birth, we would think that the conception in this young woman happened naturally and that she was pregnant when Isaiah spoke/wrote these words. The "sign" for Isaiah is not a virginal conception, but the providential timing of the birth to a young woman. ("Teenager" might be the closest English word to the meaning of the Hebrew which referred to a young woman past puberty and thus marriageable, rather than "virgin".) The origin of Jesus' virginal conception did not come from Isaiah.
There are numerous stories of virginal conception in pagan and world religions. Brown suggests three key questions concerning these stories:
Would such legends or traditions have been known to Christians in NT times? If so, they wouldn't have been included in an angelic announcement that closely follows other birth announcements in the OT.
If they had known of such stories, would the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians have wanted to pattern the Messiah after them? [Do we want a Messiah modeled after Hercules?] Since Jesus' life, death and resurrection was quite different from these other god-men, it seems unlikely their type of conception stories would have been connected with Jesus.
"Are any of these divinely engendered births really parallel to the non-sexual virginal conception of Jesus described in the NT, where Mary is not impregnated by a male deity or element, but the child is begotten through the creative power of the Holy Spirit?"
Brown elaborates more on the third question: "These 'parallels' consistently involve a type of hieros gamos where a divine male, in human or other form, impregnates a woman, either through normal sexual intercourse or through some substitute form of penetration. In short, there is no clear example of virginal conception in world or pagan religions that plausibly could have given first-century Jewish Christians the idea of the virginal conception of Jesus." [p. 523]
If there is nothing in Jewish history nor pagan history that might lead to the virginal conception stories of Jesus, the easiest explanation is "that's what happened." From "what happened," Matthew looked back and used Isaiah 7:14 as part of his "fulfillment" theme. However, if "that's what happened," why is it only in two writings? An obvious answer is that Matthew and Luke were dealing with situations where promoting the virginal conception was important.
One of those situations might have been the question of "When did Jesus become God's Son?" Paul, in Romans 1:4 suggests that the resurrection declares Jesus to be the Son of God. By the time of Mark, we, the readers, know that the identity of Jesus as Son of God begins at baptism and continues through his ministry (even if it was not publicly known until the crucifixion in the narrative). In Matthew, the identity of Jesus as Son of God is pushed back to his conception (as it is in Luke) and it is something that is acknowledged by characters in their narratives. The Gospel of John pushes Jesus' divinity back to before creation. Perhaps declaring Jesus' divine connection at conception was an issue that Matthew needed to address in his gospel.
Another of those situations might have been the accusation of Jesus' illegitimate birth. By the late second century this was clearly an approach from the anti-Christian, Celsus. Brown gives this reconstruction from Origin's work Against Celsus.
It was Jesus himself who fabricated the story that he had been born of a virgin. In fact, however, his mother was a poor country woman who earned her living by spinning. She had been driven out by her carpenter-husband when she was convicted of adultery with a soldier named Panthera. She then wandered about and secretly gave birth to Jesus. Later, because he was poor, Jesus hired himself out in Egypt where he became adept in magical powers. Puffed up by these, he claimed for himself the title of God. [p. 535]
If the beginnings of such arguments against Jesus were known to Matthew and Luke, they may have felt the need to counter it with the stories of the virginal conception and birth. If the other biblical writers weren't facing such an attack, they wouldn't need to talk about the birth.
The idea of the non-sexual "creative power of the Holy Spirit" got me thinking about the actual miracle in the womb. I've never read any discussion about this, so these are my own musings. If we have ruled out the need for male's sperm, what about the female's egg? As I pointed out above, there is a connection between the "genesis" of Jesus and the "genesis" of heaven and earth. In Genesis' first creation story, God creates out of nothing with a word. In the second, God is always using something to form animals and humans. With this miraculous conception, did God say: "Let Mary's egg become fertilized," and it happened? Or did God say, "Let a zygote be placed in Mary's womb," suggesting that both sperm and egg originated from God?
At this point in my contemplations, I find more reasons for the second. First of all, we confess that Jesus is truly and fully God -- not half God and half human -- a common creature in many pagan stories.
Secondly, while it might be argued that this view denies the humanity of Christ, I would counter that by saying that just as God created the first humans out of nothing (or from dirt and a rib); so God could create a truly human zygote without sperm or egg. I've already mentioned the "genesis" connection between our text and creation.
Thirdly, having God place a zygote in the womb does away with any sexual connotations. God becomes both the male and female in terms of the conception, while Mary remains the "God-bearer" -- something a male's anatomy wouldn't permit.
Fourthly, I believe that "conception" was still understood in the first century as the man planting a seed into the fertile "soil" of the woman. They didn't understand the union of sperm and egg. Thus, God could be seen simply as "the planter" and Mary the "soil" where the divine "seed" grew.
These are some thoughts to discuss and perhaps research. Yet, at the same time, the virgin conception wasn't that big a deal in the first century.
Eduard Schweizer (The Good News According to Matthew) writes:
It was assumed of many great men at the time, from Plato to Alexander, that they had been born without human father. The fact of such a birth therefore did not single Jesus out as unique, it simply placed him in the company of all the great men of the age.
More important than the idea of Mary's virginity therefore are the points that distinguish the birth stories in the Gospels from these other accounts. In them god is pictured as mating with a woman or virgin. . . .
Whether a virgin birth is possible is a question only a modern world ask; virgin birth was an accepted notion to men of the New Testament period. By no means, therefore, should a man's faith be judged by whether nor not he thinks a miracle like this is possible, the less so because the virgin birth plays such an infinitesimal role in the New Testament. It is nowhere described; only the Annunciation is mentioned in Matthew 1 and Luke 1. Neither Matthew nor Luke returns to the subject, not even in the course of the Christmas story proper. According to Mark 3:21, Jesus' mother, who thinks him mad, appears to have no inkling of the promises made by the angel. No other document, above all none of the many summaries of the faith in a formula, hymn, or sermon in the New Testament, mentions the virgin birth. . . .
What the text asks is therefore not whether we can consider a virgin birth physically possible, but . . . whether in this birth we can see God's own and unique intervention for man's salvation. And if this is the case, then we can also say what this story of the virgin birth is further meant to say: that this birth stands not merely as one among many in the long series of millions of births, that it took place not merely through the creative will or drive of a man, but through God's own will as creator. [pages 33-35]
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE NAMES
What, I think, is more important than the virginal conception, are the names given to this child. "Jesus" (Greek) or "Joshua" (Hebrew) -- names that mean "savior". Note that with this name, the importance of Jesus is not "who he is" -- defined by the genealogy and the virgin conception as son of God; but what he will do -- save people from their sin!
"Emmanuel," which, as Matthew tells us, means "God with us". Daniel Patte (The Gospel According to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew's Faith) suggests that we should also consider this name as part of Jesus' vocation rather than his nature. Jesus' calling is to save his people from their sins and to manifest God's presence. Nowhere else is Jesus called "Emmanuel." In fact, Matthew modifies the quote slightly. Rather than saying, "You will call ...," as in Isaiah 7:14; he has, "They will call ...." "Emmanuel" is not the name Joseph will give the child. It is the name given to him by others. By what he does -- namely saving people from their sins -- the people experience God's presence among them. It is only in Matthew where Jesus says: "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (18:20) -- and this saying is in the context of forgiving sins (see 18:15-18). This gospel ends with Jesus' promise: "I am with you always, to the end of the age" (28:20). For Matthew, it is Jesus himself, Emmanuel, who is the abiding presence of God with us after the resurrection, not the Holy Spirit (as in Luke/Acts & John). My guess is that the people experienced the divine presence after Jesus had gone. Matthew's community described it as the continuing presence of Jesus. Luke's and John's communities described it as the presence of the Holy Spirit. We humans will always have some difficulty trying to put our experiences with God into mere words.
Can we believe that in this infant, God is with us as our savior? It can be
safer to argue about what might have happened at Jesus' birth way back in
history; than to live our lives today confessing and believing that "God is with
us/me right now". I think that some of the historical arguments can be ways of
avoiding the living God now. I once suggested from something I read, that all
some people want is an inoculation of Christianity -- just enough of it so that
they don't catch the real thing. Sometimes Christmas is no more than a "booster
shot" -- something that helps us not catch the real thing. The real thing is
"God is with us". The "savior" has been born and is with us. Yet many people
feel more in bondage at Christmas time -- bondage to attend parties, buy gifts,
spend too much money, be happy, etc. We may celebrate the coming of the Prince
of Peace by making our lives more chaotic; the coming of the Lord of Life by
becoming more depressed. These can be indications that we need more of the real
How do we live today knowing that the savior, God-is-with-us now?
Perhaps what is at least as miraculous as the virginal conception is how Joseph's mind was changed. In the first century, marriages were still arranged. Their families may have determined that Joseph and Mary would be married when they were still young children. When Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, his "righteous" decision to divorce her is what the law and society expected him to do.
Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew) notes: "Jewish, Greek, and Roman law all demanded that a man divorce his wife if she were guilty of adultery. . . . Mediterranean society viewed with contempt the weakness of a man who let his love for his wife outweigh his appropriate honor in repudiating her" (p. 91). Divorcing pregnant Mary was the right thing for Joseph to do.
It would seem that Joseph was convinced that she had committed adultery and his obedience to the law and unwilling to be shamed himself forced him in good conscience to divorce her; but out of his compassion, he wouldn't expose her to public shame by dragging her before the courts.
Other commentators have suggested that divorcing Mary could mean that Joseph was offering the "real" father the opportunity to raise his child by marrying the mother.
Like Joseph of old in Genesis 37:5-22, this Joseph learns of God's will through a dream -- a dream in which a messenger/angel of the Lord speaks to him. This method of communication will occur a few other times to Joseph.
Actually, a virginal conception might be a much easier miracle than changing the minds of some of our stubborn, "I-know-I'm-right" type people. Could Joseph have been one of those? -- before the angel's visit? -- and before Mary gives birth to a son? [I think that Ahaz, from the First Lesson is definitely one of those kinds of people -- he righteously will not ask for a sign, quoting scriptures that he won't put God to the test (Isaiah 7:10). But God is going to give him a sign whether he wants it or not.]
The statement of the angel in v. 20 raises a question, "Why would Joseph be afraid to take Mary as his wife?" While the literal was found in v. 18 can simply mean "She was pregnant," what if Matthew intended a more literal meaning: If "She was found to be pregnant," who found her in that condition? Was she beginning to show? Could Joseph's fear be related to rumors that his betrothed was already pregnant? "What would the neighbors say" kind of fear?
Besides our self-righteousness, how often do we let "fear of the neighbors" control our actions? God breaks through both these barriers in Joseph. At the end, he takes Mary as his wife, in spite of his fears; and he claims the son as his own by naming him, in spite of his earlier self-righteous decision to quietly divorce this woman who was carrying another man's child (as he supposed).
Joseph's actions, though, are still based on faith. The decision to follow through with the marriage plans was left up to him. He had to believe the message from the angel in the dream that the child was from the Holy Spirit and that he should not be afraid.
It could also be that Matthew uses Joseph -- a "righteous man" (v. 19) -- as the first indication that what God demands is a righteousness that "exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees" (5:20). Joseph has determined what he thinks is "right" to do; but that was not the same as what God had determined was the "right" thing to do.
The real event of Christmas is that God comes to change the world and each of us -- not just through a historical virginal conception and a baby lying in a manger, but through the God who is with us today; shattering our self-righteous attitudes and seeking to move us beyond our fears and our self-righteousness.
MORE ON "EMMANUEL"
What does it mean to call the child, "Jesus" the one who "saves us from our sins"? What does it mean to call the child, "Emmanuel," the "God who is with us"? Note that these questions are in the present tense.
In a parallel vein, I have heard testimonies from individuals who praise God for what God did for the individual in the past -- usually centered on some significant way that God "saved" the person from an unhealthy life. I have frequently left such events wondering: What is God doing for that person now -- today?
The same could be said of congregations who keep looking back to their wondrous pasts, while seemingly forgetting that the God of the past is still with them today.
"Emmanuel" is actually a phrase in Hebrew (`immanu el). It doesn't contain a verb, and it is usually correct to provide a present tense form of "to be," e.g., NRSV's "God is with us." Thus this name doesn't imply that God was with us only during Jesus' lifetime, but that through Jesus, God continues to be with us.
In doing a little research on this Hebrew phrase which occurs in Isaiah 7:14 and 8:8, I discovered that the preposition `im = "with" comes from the verb `MM which means: (1) "to be hidden" and (2) "to be common or in common".
The primary noun from this verb, `am means "people" or a "group of people" who have something in common. It is often used of Israelites in opposition to Gentiles. It is part of the phrase `am ha'arez = "people of the land". It is also used of a "swarm" or "flock" of animals.
Anyway, it seems to me that the translation "God is with us" doesn't completely capture the sense of the Hebrew. The words suggest that "God is in common with us people" -- or "God is one of us." In this sense, John captures the sense with "The Word became flesh and lived among us" (1:14a).
A NEW & DIFFERENT COMMUNITY
Carter (Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading) suggests that this miraculous conception turns the ancient world upside down.
This conception without male agency and outside marriage circumvents the patriarchal household structure emphasized in 1:1-17. God is not bound by a structure that privileges male power. God seems to counter it, a theme that will continue as Jesus creates a new community in which the household is "not ruled by or even defined by a male head of the house" [quote from Levine, "Matthew," 254](see 4:18-22; 12:46-50; chs. 19-20). And, second, the removal of human fatherhood anticipates the theme that membership in Jesus' new community is not constituted by descent through the father's biological or ethnic line. [from Eilberg-Schwartz, God's Phallus, 223-37]. Jesus is descendent of Abraham and David not by physical descent but by God's action. God's action prepares the way for two central dimensions of the "over-against" identity of the community of disciples. This community will be non-patriarchal and ethnically inclusive. [a footnote: God's actions, which exercise complete control over Mary's womb without her knowledge and consent, raise disturbing questions. Note that she will need a male to "rescue" her form her "shame" and reincorporate her into patriarchal society. What sort of image of God does this scene present? How does the preceding and following material interact with this scene?]
As we look at Matthew throughout this year, we will see what God has planned for this very special, anointed, child.
Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for the Sunday of the Revelation to Joseph
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