December 10 – Matthew 1:18-25


I said it last week but I’ll say it again: year after year at Christmas we return to similar passages and that can make them hard to study, not because they aren’t important to us but because they’re so familiar to us. So, again, I’ll 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.

This year for Advent we’re looking at the Nativity, the unassuming community of people most immediately impacted by Jesus’s birth. By comparison to Elizabeth and Zechariah (who we looked at LAST WEEK), Mary and Joseph are relative no-names. The narrative reveals them both as people of deep character and steadfast love, but they’re otherwise ordinary people of their time living in the relatively small town of Nazareth. Joseph worked with his hands as a builder, which would become Jesus’s apprenticeship and vocation for many years, and Mary was betrothed to him at a young age.

The narrative also reveals a serious complicating factor: Mary was 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 promised to one another in formal betrothal, something more than engagement, which is why Joseph had to officially divorce Mary if he wanted out (v.19), 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 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. 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 first-century Palestine, so it isn’t as special and prophetic as we might have expected.

But this just takes the theme of Jesus’s 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.

Lastly, the passage connects this promised baby with the promised Messiah in Isaiah, “‘and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means God with us).” Matthew’s account of Jesus’s birth is brief, but loaded with significance. Here is the promised King, the son of David, who will shepherd Israel (Ez. 34:22-24) and rule forever (Isa. 9:6-7). Here is the hope for God’s people, One who is coming to save his people from their sin and declare, “Yahweh saves!” And here is the Ancient of Days (Dan. 7:13-14), God himself with us. Not just nearby and available, but with us, having come to us, and upon finding us, showing us how he himself is our every hope.

Questions for Discussion

• Would someone read Matthew 1:18–25 for us?

• What stands out to you from this passage?

• What do you think all this was like for Mary and Joseph?

• How might this ordeal have tested their faith in God?

• What can this story teach us about the way God uses people to accomplish his plans?

• How can this passage help us celebrate Jesus’s birth this Christmas?