December 5 – Matthew 1:18-25
Year after year at Christmas we return to similar passages (we did this same passage last year, actually). And each year it can be a little tough to study the Christmas story, not because it isn’t important to us but because it’s so familiar to us. So, I’d encourage you and your group to study through the passage this week carefully, to sit with it, to look for new things that you’ve never noticed before, but to also enjoy the practice of repeating back this story to yourselves. Here is the very dawning of our every hope, the most precious story we have: the birth of our savior.
This week we’ll keep going through the book of Matthew and read Matthew’s terribly brief account of Jesus’ birth. There we meet Mary, Jesus’ mother, betrothed to a man named Joseph, and pregnant by the work of the Holy Spirit (read Luke 1:26-38 for more on that). In their time period and culture, betrothal was somewhere between our idea of engagement and marriage—they weren’t yet living together or doing what married people do, but they were also promised to one another in formal betrothal. That’s why, in verse 19, Joseph had to officially divorce Mary if he wanted out, rather than just breaking off his relationship with her.
In the rosy Christmas story we’re familiar with, the one we probably learned as a child, we typically gloss over the scandal here. A man found out his fiancée was pregnant, and he knew good and well the baby wasn’t his. Imagine all of the emotions that must’ve poured through him, the shock and rage, the feelings of rejection and sorrow. Joseph and Mary were from a small town—their families probably knew each other, and Joseph probably grew up playing with Mary’s brothers (if she had any). This was undoubtedly a blow to Joseph, and he certainly could’ve made a scene about it.
But the text calls him a “just man…unwilling to put her to shame.”(1:19) Under the Mosaic law, Mary could’ve been stoned for adultery. This didn’t happen very often in the first century, but it certainly could have. Less lethal, but just as brutal, Joseph could’ve divorced her loudly, shaming her to his small town community and making sure she paid for her apparent infidelity. Joseph decided against hurting Mary for it, but nevertheless planned to divorce her quietly. And praise God he did this! Praise God he went about it quietly, taking his time “considering these things.”(1:20) Doing so obviously fit into God’s plan, but it provided Joseph with this opportunity to hear straight from an angel of the Lord about a different course to take.
From the beginning of the angel’s message we see a revealing emphasis on names. He addressed Joseph as a “son of David,” which continues what Matthew started in his genealogy and highlights Jesus as the heir to the Davidic throne (a royal lineage he also receives through Mary; cf. Luke 3:23-38). After explaining how Mary became pregnant, he told Joseph to name Mary’s son Jesus, Yeshua in Hebrew, meaning “Yahweh saves,” which is why the angel explained “for he will save his people from their sins.” Interestingly, this was one of the more common boy names in the first century, so it isn’t as special and prophetic as we might have expected; it’s a far cry from God telling Hosea to name his son, “Not My People.”(Hos.1:9)
But this just takes the theme of Jesus’ birth one step forward. Here we have both the coming King and a miraculous truth, “God saves.” In particular, God saves those who need saving, meaning God saves sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). And yet this truth comes in a really unassuming package: a baby born in a manger with a run-of-the-mill name. But what else is the incarnation, God of the Universe becoming an infant, if it’s not miraculous truth squeezed down into the commonplace? And this gives us profound hope, because if God can do miracles with the commonplace then he can do something miraculous with us, too.
Questions for Discussion
• Would someone read Matthew 1:18–25 for us?
• What stands out to you from this passage?
• What do you think it was like for Joseph to receive this news?
• Why do you think this passage emphasizes names so much?
• How does Jesus’ birth announcement fit with the promises we looked at last week?
• How does the story of Jesus’ birth help us understand his mission on earth?
• How can this passage help you worship Jesus this Christmas?