The birth of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1: 18-25)
(Mt 1: 18-25) “But he did not meet her until she gave birth to her firstborn son; and called him JESUS.”
At the end of our previous study, we considered that the genealogy of Jesus is interrupted upon reaching Joseph. Matthew cannot repeat the formula used in all previous generations and say that “Joseph begat Jesus” because his birth was different from any of the births of his ancestors. Therefore, he has to make a parenthesis to explain the conditions in which Jesus was begotten. As we will see, the child that was to be born would be a man, but his birth was going to be miraculous, being born of a virgin by the Holy Spirit without the intervention of any man. This had to be so because, with him, all the promises made to the Jewish nation for centuries would be fulfilled.
Now, we must notice how Matthew divides the story of the birth of Jesus into three different episodes:
- The news of Mary’s pregnancy (Mt 1: 18-25).
- The magi visit who seek the Messiah who was born to worship him (Mt 2: 1-18).
- The return of Joseph to Galilee from Egypt (Mt 2: 19-23).
As we will see, the Christmas story was full of dangers that threatened the safety of the baby Jesus. In the first episode, when Joseph learned the news of Mary’s pregnancy, his decision was about to cause Jesus to be born to a single mother. In the second, Herod’s jealousy once again endangered the child’s life when he killed all the infants of Bethlehem. And in the third, when Joseph returned to Galilee with his family, he feared further persecution from Archelaus, Herod’s son.
But faced with each of these situations, God intervened through an angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream and warned him of the danger, indicating the way to follow to be delivered (Mt 1:20) (Mt 2:13) ( Mt 2: 19-20). And, what is very important too, Joseph always responded by obeying promptly (Mt 1:24) (Mt 2:14) (Mt 2:21).
In any case, Matthew wants to point out that all this did not happen by chance, but in fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies (Mt 1: 22-23) (Mt 2:15) (Mt 2:23).
José finds out about Mary’s pregnancy
The account of the birth of Jesus that we find in Matthew must be complemented with the one written by Luke (Lk 1: 5-2: 52). Both agree on the main points:
Joseph was betrothed to Mary when he conceived through the Holy Spirit.
The child should be called “Jesus”.
- He was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth.
But Lucas adds other essential details to have a complete picture of what happened in those days. For example, before what Matthew recounts at the beginning of his Gospel, we must place Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would conceive by the divine action of the Holy Spirit (Lk 1: 26-38). After this, Mary visited Zacharias and Elizabeth and was with them for three months (Lk 1: 39-56). It was probably after this trip that José learned the news of her pregnancy.
It is important to note that at that time, Joseph and Mary were married. To understand what this means, we must remember that in those days, Jewish marriages were agreed upon by parents when the spouses were still children or very young. When making this decision, the least thing was the erotic affinity between the young people that would come after they were married. What mattered to the parents in making this decision were issues related to both families’ social, cultural and spiritual affinity. Years later, the engagement became legal in the betrothal. From that moment, they were considered husband and wife and could only be separated by legal divorce. But the marriage was not consummated yet, instead, they would have to wait yet another year before the groom took the bride home and the cohabitation began. At that time, a splendid celebration would take place, which depending on the financial possibilities of the family, could consist of a banquet that usually lasted seven days.
It was in that year between the betrothal and the wedding that Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant.
We do not know how José came to know of María’s pregnancy. This is not explained to us by the biblical text. In any case, we imagine that Mary would at some point try to explain to Joseph what the angel Gabriel had announced to her. Now, how to convince Joseph that he had conceived through the Holy Spirit when something like this had never happened in the history of mankind? When they saw her pregnant, everyone would think that José had had sexual relations with her before the marriage was consummated. But José, who knew perfectly well that he hadn’t done any of that, could only think that Maria had been with another man. What a complicated situation! To do?
The text begins by telling us that Joseph “was just,” that is, he was a man who wanted to live according to God’s law. Now, the situation before him was complicated. On the one hand, we can imagine the great disappointment that he would take when he learned that the woman he was about to marry was pregnant, that is, that she had been unfaithful. But then again, his own name would be compromised if he didn’t do something about it.
Faced with a feeling of betrayal like the one he might be experiencing, the most logical thing would be to start a legal process against Maria before the elders. The law of Moses contemplated a case similar to this and established that the woman should be punished with death (Deut 22: 23-24), although everything seems to indicate that at this time, it no longer applied. This would allow José to be “fair” in applying the law and get rid of the bad name that Maria was giving him. Of course, Maria would be exposed to a terrible humiliation that would scar her for the rest of her life.
But José did not want to do this, and his attitude is a bit strange to us. It makes us think that Joseph might have doubts about the story of the conception through the Holy Spirit, which we imagine that he would already know by now. And there was also the pregnancy of Elizabeth, Zacharias’s wife, which had occurred a little earlier in an equally supernatural way. Together with what he knew about María, all these details made it difficult for him to think that she had been unfaithful. And if all this weren’t enough, he truly loved her and didn’t want to hurt her. He was unable to act out of revenge or hatred.
José had a real dilemma to solve. To do? All his thoughts were in conflict, and he would be tremendously disappointed. How could Maria have been unfaithful to him like that? But why make up a story like the conception by the Holy Spirit to justify yourself if you knew beforehand that no one was going to believe it? Was that young woman who he believed honest and pure a liar whose sanity also had to be doubted? How many hours and days would you spend thinking about what to do?
Finally, José believed that the best thing to do would be to give her a divorce letter and discreetly fire her. This would not save her own reputation, but at least it would save Maria the embarrassment of the public scandal that a legal process would entail. Indeed, this option did not fully satisfy him, but it was the only way he found to combine justice with mercy within the possibilities he had.
In all this, we see the portrait of a good man. The easy thing would have been to seek revenge after what clearly seemed an infidelity by his wife. But he puts into practice what Proverbs said: “love will cover all faults” (Pr 10:12). He was not acting out of hatred or revenge, but rather he was a truly caring and compassionate man. Although Joseph recorded no word in the gospels, his attitudes and actions allow us to see an exemplary man.
Some, driven by a legalistic spirit, may argue that Joseph, in order to have been really just, should have publicly denounced his wife for fornication as the law indicated for these cases. But José had no proof that this had really happened, and on the other hand, there were details that made him doubt, although he could not explain them. In such a situation, he preferred to be guided by love and mercy.
An angel of the Lord appears in a dream to Joseph
We imagine that in those days, Joseph prayed tirelessly, seeking God’s direction, and now he was going to be answered. The Lord comes to Joseph’s aid in order to show him the way to follow at the crossroads he was at, and he does so through an angel who appeared to him in a dream.
As we have just seen, José feared the social repercussions that his decision would have for María and for himself. There was no ideal option. The situation was especially difficult for José because he did not have all the necessary information to make a correct decision. But the situation was going to change completely with the information that the angel was going to provide. After this, what seemed like an enormous misfortune, he was to discover that it was the greatest privilege that human beings could receive. God had visited their home in a unique way in history, and had chosen them to care for the incarnate Son of God in his infancy.
The angel begins by greeting Joseph with the words “son of David”, a title with which he anticipated the messianic character of his announcement. What the angel was going to communicate to him had to do with the promise made to David that his son would sit on the throne and his kingdom would be eternally stable. As Matthew has shown through the previous genealogy, Joseph was a descendant of King David, and the son that Mary was to have would be the fulfilment of the promise made to David.
But for that to take place, Joseph would have to receive Mary and recognize the child as his legitimate descendant in order for him to be legally David’s son. For this reason, the angel commissioned him to receive Mary and name the child when it was born.
“Begotten of the Holy Spirit”
However, Joseph would still wonder who the child’s real father was, since he was sure that he was not. The angel confirmed what he had surely already heard; that the Holy Spirit had supernaturally begotten him.
Now, is it possible to believe in these things in the 21st century? Well, a matter like that is not easy to accept now, not even two thousand years ago. Note that the first reaction of the characters in this story was one of astonishment and disbelief. For example, Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, at first did not believe the words of the angel who announced that his barren wife was going to conceive a child in her old age (Lk 1:20). Also, Mary, when the angel announced that she was going to conceive a child, asked, “how will this be?” (Lk 1:34). And when José found out about the pregnancy, he was very sceptical, and his first decision was to leave María.
However, eventually, all of them believed in these supernatural facts. And their faith is a strong support for ours. Because if after evaluating all the evidence, they came to the conclusion that God had supernaturally intervened in the birth of Jesus, it was because the matter was clear. Otherwise, why make up a story that no one would believe to justify an act of immorality committed during the period of the betrothal? Looking for such an excuse would only make the problem worse. Who would believe such a thing? Didn’t they know that everyone was going to treat them crazy?
But they became fully convinced that the Holy Spirit had begotten Jesus. What made you think that way? In the first place, the repeated appearances of angels announcing the unprecedented news of the birth of the son of the Most High. This overcame all the doubts that they could have on the matter. But later, when the boy grew up, his life confirmed beyond any doubt that he was a unique and unrepeatable person. All the wonderful works that he made would be impossible to understand without accepting his supernatural origin.
On the other hand, there was the fact that no one could ever accuse him of having committed any sin. This was only possible if he had been begotten by the Holy Spirit, because otherwise, he would have inherited the same fallen nature of all men. But it had to be that way in order to become our Savior.
In the same way, Mary obeyed the angel Gabriel’s words and offered herself to be the servant of the Lord and conceive the son of the Most High (Lk 1:38), so Joseph also quickly obeyed the angel of the Lord who had appeared to him in dreams. This attitude shared by both explains why the Lord chose them for this high service.
From that moment on, José anticipated the wedding and received María in his house so that the child would be born into an already established family. This evidently implied that he recognized the paternity of the child and was willing to accept the social shame of Maria’s pregnancy. In this way, criticism would be directed primarily against him rather than his wife. That was the price he would have to pay in order to enjoy the high privilege for which God had chosen him. Many years later, when Jesus was an adult and had begun his public ministry, the malicious insinuations that some made about the fact that he had been born in fornication could still be heard (Jn 8:41).
“You will call his name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.”
Another detail of Joseph’s obedience is that he named the child, thus publicly assuming his paternal role. And of course, he gave him the name that the angel had told him: “And he called his name Jesus” (Mt 1:25).
Note that in this passage, the Lord Jesus receives two names: “Jesus”, which describes his mission as the savior of men; and “Immanuel” (Mt 1:23), which means “God with us”, and which reveals his divine nature.
In the first place, the name “Jesus” was assigned to him by his true heavenly Father and contained an important message: “Jehovah is salvation” or “Jehovah saves”.
Actually, “Jesus” is the Greek version of the Hebrew “Joshua”. This detail is interesting because Joshua was the one designated by God to introduce the people of Israel into the promised land. Initially, it should have been Moses who did it, but he was disqualified because of his disobedience, so even though Moses had been an important servant of God in the history of Israel who had given them the law, yet he could not lead to the people to enjoy the promised land. This was done by Joshua. And in the same way, Jesus now enters history with the mission of leading his people to God’s salvation. As the apostle John would say: “the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1:17).
Now, this announcement is amazing: “He will save his people from their sins.” Who was that boy? When years later, as an adult, Jesus told a person with paralysis that his sins were forgiven, some of those who were there immediately thought that he was blaspheming because “who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mr 2: 7). His reasoning was correct: only God can forgive man’s sins. Therefore, when the angel announced that Jesus would save his people from their sins, he was implicitly saying that the unborn child was God himself.
But this salvation from sins created a problem for the Jews who were waiting for a political and social salvation. When they realized that Jesus had come to achieve spiritual salvation, they were disappointed and rejected him.
Today too, as in those days, there are many who believe that the true problems of the human being have to do with the lack of work, health, education, welfare, social justice ... but they do not believe that sin is a real problem in their lives (such as liberation theology). Of course, God’s diagnosis is different. From the divine perspective, sin is what prevents man from having and fully enjoying all these things, so it was necessary that the Messiah first save man from his sins.
On the other hand, he affirms that he “will save his people.” This leads us to wonder who his people are. Surely, Jews reading this statement would think it was a reference to Israel, God’s people. However, if they continued to read the Gospel of Matthew, they would see that the Lord Jesus Christ said that some who believed themselves to be God’s people would be excluded from the kingdom of heaven. In contrast, others who were not physical descendants of Abraham would be included (Mt 8:10 -12). The determining factor was faith, and that is why, following the teachings of Jesus, the apostles came to say that Abraham is the father of all who believe, be they Jew or Gentile (Ro 4:16). The Lord referred to this fact when he said that he also had other sheep that were not of that fold that he should also bring so that there would be one flock and one shepherd (Jn 10:16). Therefore, the people Jesus had come to save cannot be identified with any race or lineage, although it is true that he came to the Jews in the first place.
According to the scriptures
The coming of the Messiah would be carried out strictly fulfilling everything that the Word of God in the Old Testament had announced beforehand about him. Matthew frequently justifies many details of the life and work of the Lord Jesus Christ with quotations from the Scriptures. This gives us to understand that the coming of the Messiah took place after a long historical preparation.
In connection with the virgin birth of Mary, Matthew contributes a prophecy from Isaiah:
(Is 7:14) “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign; behold, the virgin will conceive, and will give birth to a son, and will call his name Immanuel.”
The quote comes from a passage in which Isaiah addresses the king of Judah, Ahaz. He was in serious trouble because his kingdom was being threatened by Rezin, king of Syria and by Peka, king of Israel. The intention of his enemies was to end the dynasty of David and put in his place another king, the “son of Tabeel” (Is 7: 6). Faced with this threat, Ahaz and his people shuddered “as the trees of the mountain shake because of the wind” (Is 7: 2).
The prophet Isaiah addressed Ahaz with the intention of reassuring him and giving him hope. According to the man of God, the problem was not political, but was a matter of faith. And this is where the real difficulty was, because Ahaz was an unbelieving man. This was demonstrated when in an unusual way, Isaiah told the king to ask for a sign from God, to which the king refused, pretending to be a false humility. Deep down, Ahaz did not believe in God and did not want to take him into account in his way of doing politics.
However, what was at stake was the continuity of the Davidic dynasty and, with it, the messianic promise. Therefore, the Lord was going to give him a sign that would serve to confirm that the enemy alliance would not prosper. It was then that Isaiah prophesied what our verse says (Is 7:14).
Now, what exactly was that signal going to consist of? In principle, everything seems to indicate that in the context of King Ahaz, a virgin maiden would marry and have a son who would be called “Immanuel”, which meant “God with us”. Obviously, there was nothing miraculous in this fact, but there was something miraculous in what the prophet added: “Before the child knows how to reject the bad and choose the good, the land of the two kings that you fear will be abandoned” (Is 7:16). With this, God was manifesting his commitment to the descendants of David, which was to be perpetuated until his promise was fulfilled with a descendant who would sit on the throne eternally (2 S 7: 12-16). We do not know exactly which child he was referring to, although some have proposed Hezekiah, son of Ahaz.
But according to Matthew, this prophecy expected a much greater fulfilment to take place with Jesus. The first child born in the court of Ahaz would be called “Immanuel”, and it would serve to remind them that God was with them, but that did not mean that the child was really God. But in the case of Jesus, the name Immanuel takes on a new, much fuller meaning. It was no longer just a name that brought hope, but the child to be born would be God himself living in the midst of his people. And in the same way, the young virgin maiden of the first fulfillment would now be a virgin who would conceive without the mediation of a male, but by the work of the Holy Spirit.
This would fulfill what was also prophesied in that same section of Isaiah:
(Is 9: 6-7) “Because a child is born to us, a son is given to us, and the principality on his shoulder; and his name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. His empire and peace will have no limit, on the throne of David and on his kingdom, arranging and confirming him in judgment and in justice from now on and forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. “
“You will call his name Immanuel, which is translated: God with us.”
As we have already mentioned, Immanuel would be the name that believing parents would give a child born at critical moments to express their confidence in the assurance that God was with them. But the child that would be born to Mary would not only bear a name that would offer them hope in difficult times, but literally that child would be “God with us.”
In Christ, God came to dwell among men. This is how the apostle John put it:
(Jn 1:14) “And that Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth.”
In the Old Testament, God had dwelt in the temple, but now he appears in the midst of his people in a living, visible, tangible way. This is the supreme revelation of God.
(He 1: 1) “God, having spoken many times and in many ways in former times to the fathers through the prophets, in these last days has spoken to us through the Son.”
But not only was he going to reveal God in a unique way, but he was also about to save man from all his miseries. For that, it was necessary that he become like one of them. It is not possible to do otherwise. To care for lepers, you have to be with them. To preach to people in the slums, you have to go where they are. In this sense, we value the strong missionary vocation of the Apostle Paul, who said:
(1 Cor 9: 19-22) “Therefore, being free of all, I have made myself the servant of all to win greater numbers . I have made myself to the Jews as a Jew, to win the Jews; those who are subject to the law (although I am not subject to the law) as subject to the law, to win over those who are subject to the law; those who are lawless, as if I were lawless (not being lawless of God but under the law of Christ), to win those who are lawless. I have made the weak to win the weak; I have done everything to all so that in any case I save some. “
Such men deserve our admiration, but we must acknowledge that none of their actions can match that of Christ.
(2 Cor 8: 9) “For you already know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor, being rich so that you through his poverty might be enriched.”
Being the Creator of all things, he assumed the human nature that he himself had created and came to meet us to enrich us with his grace. He purposed to lead us out of our miseries, sin, and discouragement to make us his children and heirs with Christ. He entered our sin-polluted atmosphere in order to bear our own condemnation and thus be able to justify us before God. For this, he approached the sick to heal them, the demonized to free them, the hungry to feed them, but above all, he sought the lost to save them.
Although many people think that God is far from man, this is totally false. Here we see that God has never left the human being, and in Jesus Christ, he has demonstrated it in an incontestable way.
“But he didn’t meet her until she gave birth to her firstborn son.”
Joseph obeyed the angel’s command and took Mary home as a wife but did not have marital relations with her until after the birth of the promised Child.
This is the natural meaning of the phrase, but it is evidently against the Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, so some have made desperate efforts to give the phrase another meaning.
Let’s not forget that throughout the Bible, motherhood has been considered a blessing from God, and on the contrary, sterility was seen as a social stigma. In the same way, although the Catholic Church assumes that virginity is a more dignified and glorious state than that of motherhood, this would not be the way of thinking of Joseph and Mary, who had been brought up according to the values of the Old Testament, where We found no trace of that idea.
The proof that after the birth of Jesus, his parents were blessed by God with a family of several children we can deduce from the fact that he was his “firstborn son”, which implies other children’s presence. This is confirmed by the numerous references that we find in the New Testament to the other children of Joseph and Mary (Mt 12:46) (Mt 13: 55-56) (Mr 6: 3) (Jn 7: 3-5) (Ac 1:14) (1 Cor 9: 5) (Ga 1:19).
The Catholic Church has changed all this in order to exalt the figure of the Virgin Mary to an extent that in no way can find justification in the Bible. Calling her queen of heaven, praying to her as a mediator between God and men, worshipping her, saying that she is the mother of God, or that she herself was born without sin by an immaculate conception, are just some of the many excesses that the Catholic Church has committed in relation to Maria.
But the fact that the Bible does not allow us to get to that point should not lead us to lose sight of the fidelity and love that both Joseph and Mary professed towards the Lord. Your example should be a source of inspiration for us too.