Dear Radio Friends,
Today we consider Matthew 1:18. This verse reads: “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.”
In this one verse is contained a fundamental and great doctrine of the Christian faith: the virgin birth. This truth is contained in all ecumenical confessions, including the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary.” The virgin birth is one of the great truths of grace. In our last broadcast we considered the line of Christ at the time of Ruth and Boaz. Mention was also made of Pharez, the son of Judah and Tamar. In this connection, we noted the miraculous possibility of Christ’s birth. If left up to man, Christ would not have been born. Man sinned against God. But God made it possible, even through the very sins of God’s people. From this point of view alone, the possibility of Christ’s birth is miraculous.
But the verse we consider today reveals something that is even more mind-boggling. Our Savior is the divine person of the Son of God, who in His person is both God and man. Bearing that in mind, we will consider that today, too.
Joseph and Mary were espoused, that is, they were engaged to one another. They were a poor but happy young couple, both of whom looked forward to a simple life together as husband and wife. The Bible does not express this fact. But neither ought we to think that their relationship was any different than that of any other young man and woman who are engaged to be married. They no doubt were excited and were busy making plans to marry soon.
Joseph was a man of Nazareth, a small, insignificant village tucked away in the hills of Galilee. He was a carpenter by trade, and was far from independently wealthy. He was an honest and upright man. He was also a man of faith. The Scripture tells us very little of Joseph really. When Jesus began His earthly ministry, we find that Joseph himself is hardly mentioned.
Joseph must have been a godly man of simple and heroic faith. After all, when the angel appeared to him and told him of Christ’s miraculous conception in the womb of his betrothed, he bowed before God’s will. He knew it would cause him shame and derision among family and friends. No one would believe the miraculous birth of Jesus. But he was willing to undergo all of this and, for that reason, did not hesitate to take Mary to be his wife.
It also took great faith for him to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt for approximately two years. He had to make a living there during that time, too, after all. So we must not short Joseph of his faith, though little is said of him. He was a good husband. And, to all intents and purposes, a good father, too.
This young Joseph had asked Mary to be his bride. How exciting, is that not, young women? Joseph had asked this young woman of about 17 or 18 years old to marry him.
Like Joseph, Mary was of humble birth. Though both she and Joseph were born of the line of David, that line had fallen into oblivion. Mary was born and raised in Nazareth as well, probably a neighbor of Joseph. Much more is known of Mary than of Joseph. Not because she was holy herself, as the Roman Catholic Church likes to make of her. She did not assist Christ in our salvation. She is not some special saint. Mary was a normal young girl who grew up in a little village. She had her sins and weaknesses, just like every other saint. She was a woman of faith, however. She bowed before the announcement of the angel to her that she would conceive and bring forth the Messiah, that is, the Christ. Like Joseph, she bore humbly the shame and degradation that people must have heaped upon her, finding her with child before being married. And though, at times, her actions during Jesus’ earthly ministry were rash, nevertheless, she believed in Jesus as the Savior and the Christ.
So Mary and Joseph provide evidence that, though the nation of Israel as a whole was characterized by legalism and work-righteousness, there were still those who lived in faith.
Now, what is important in our text is also the fact that Joseph had asked for Mary’s hand in marriage. They were espoused, this passage tells us. That means that they were betrothed, or engaged. This engagement was not marked by a giving of a diamond. In those days engagement was much more permanent than it is today. A “bill of engagement” was drawn up, which both signed. In that bill were not only the obligations of the betrothed outlined, but the amount of a dowry that must be paid by the young man to the father of the girl. To be espoused, therefore, was a formal compact that as much as signified marriage. It could only be broken by means of a formal writ of divorce.
At the same time, those engaged in this manner to one another were to abstain from any kind of physical relationship with each other. For that reason, espousal was usually a very short period of time, maybe a year at most. All of this comes into play when we read of the subsequent actions of Joseph when he found out Mary was expecting a child. He was going to “put her away privately” by a writ of divorcement and not make a public spectacle of her.
What a surprise it had been to Joseph to hear that his espoused was great with child. Joseph knew it was not his child. He had been faithful to the command of God and shown total respect for his fiancée. He must have gone through the same range of emotions that anyone would if they knew their loved one was unfaithful: anger, bitterness, resentment, shame. Joseph must also have given some heavy consideration to what had happened. He no doubt heard Mary’s explanation of what took place. But, let us face it. If some young girl today made the claim that Mary did, would we believe it? It is too far-fetched. Joseph did not believe Mary either, until later, when the angel confirmed it.
But then, Joseph’s surprise was no greater than Mary’s when the angel appeared to her and told her that she would conceive. We find this announcement to Mary in Luke 1. After the angel told Mary that she was going to conceive in her womb the Son of the highest, her reaction was, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” She was surprised, and even troubled, when she first heard of what was to take place. How was she going to explain this? What shame she would have to bear. No one would believe her.
Not even Joseph believed her. He was going to put her away. And, good man that he was, he was not going to make a public matter out of it all by taking her to court. He decided simply to sign the bill of divorcement that would break off the engagement.
We ought, now, to understand what personal difficulties this miraculous conception of Mary caused her and Joseph. They never lived down the shame, it seems. And it was not as if people did not think of unfaithfulness when thinking of this couple. We read this in a debate Jesus had with the Pharisees in John 8:39-44. The Pharisees had declared to Jesus that Abraham was their father. Jesus then explained to them that they did the deeds of their father, which was the devil. In anger, they retaliated with these words: “We be not born of fornication.” There definitely was a stigma attached to Joseph and Mary, as well as to Jesus Himself, because of this miraculous birth. It made life difficult for this couple. Yet, in all of this, we must see the simple faith of this man and woman. They believed.
We, too, are called upon to believe. What we hear in this account before us is a marvelous and humanly impossible thing. Yet, it is exactly in this, the incarnation of Christ, that we rejoice in this time of year. If what the Word of God says here is not true, then there is no reason at all for rejoicing, none at all. If we tell the Christmas story without this truth standing at its center, then that story is useless and vain. It is not more than a romantic tale that is told among all the other Christmas stories, as the unbelieving world maintains.
We have, in this passage, the amazing truth of the virgin birth—a woman who had never known a man intimately, who had never, to use the words of our text, “come together with a man,” conceived a child. She was a young woman. She was an unwed woman, who had preserved herself pure and holy. She was a virgin. And she conceived a child. I know the reaction of unbelief to this truth. The reaction of unbelief is: “Ha-ha. Nice story. Children love to hear it. But it is, after all, a story, a fairy tale. It’s not truth. It cannot be truth, because all of us know that in order for a woman to conceive, there must be the seed of a man. The story, therefore,” unbelief says, “cannot be true.” And because of this view, many in the church, too, will deny the virgin birth. “It is not necessary for the virgin birth of Christ to take place. A virgin birth is not necessary to support the theology today that merely teaches the humanity of Christ. Do away with this miracle. We do not wish to embarrass ourselves in the face of modern science. It is but a heartwarming tale.”
But here, this passage in Matthew, does not teach that the virgin birth is a fairy tale. Before Mary and Joseph came together, that is, before they knew each other in that intimate way of a husband and wife, Mary was found with child. And Mary was a virgin. Mary recognized this, too, when she asked the angel, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” The answer of the angel to Mary in Luke 1:35 explains the means by which Mary actually conceived. “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. Therefore that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” Mary had known no man. And the fact that she is a virgin is a sign to you and me of the greatest of all miracles. We may not take away the virgin birth. The virgin birth is a sign that truly Christ is the Son of God made flesh.
This is supported by the end of the verse that we consider: “She was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” She was not found with child of Joseph; she was not found with child of a man; she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, was sent forth by the triune God to do that work of God. The power of this Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary. And that small ovum inside of her was given life. In very simple language, that seed in Mary was human, it was human because it was the seed of a woman. But it was given life by the Holy Spirit. And that baby became divine. God became the Father of that child. Joseph was always viewed by others as Jesus’ father, no doubt. But Joseph was not truly Jesus’ father. God was.
Now, that is not hard to understand. Although beyond human imagination, it is not hard to understand the incarnation. The Bible recognizes this great truth everywhere. Let me give you a very simple example. When Joseph and Mary brought Jesus into the temple at thirty days old in order to redeem Him from the priesthood, they met a man named Simeon. Simeon prophesied some pretty fantastic things concerning Jesus. And we read now, in Luke 2:33, of Joseph’s and Mary’s reaction to the words of Simeon. We read there, “And Joseph and his mother marveled at those things which were spoken of him.” Now, it may be a subtle thing, but notice how this verse does not say how Jesus’ mother and father marveled at what was said. We read specifically that Joseph and Jesus’ mother marveled. The scriptural account is consistent throughout. Jesus was born of a woman who was a sinner just as we are. Jesus assumed the human nature. He was a man with the same weaknesses as a man. But He was also the divine Son of God. He had a divine nature that made Him sinless and all-powerful.
It is this that we must notice in Matthew 1:18, too. Christ is all-powerful. He is powerful to save us from sin. That is the reason we rejoice in Christ’s incarnation. God made possible in Jesus Christ, through this miraculous conception, what was humanly impossible, that is, deliverance from sin and hell.
Jesus Christ was sent into this world as the highest act of God’s love and grace toward His people. I know that the vast majority of the church world see Jesus as nothing more than a really, really good man who did all kinds of good things for people. He is come, they say, to help people make this world a better place. That is not why we ought to rejoice in Christ’s conception and birth. This is why we celebrate: Christ is born into this world to save sinners. Notice why Joseph is told to name this child Jesus, in Matthew 1:21. “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.” That is why the Son of God had to be born into our human flesh. This was the only way that salvation was possible—the only way! Jesus was sent to secure that salvation for us.
You see, our sin is of such a nature that it alienates us from God. Sin forms a barrier that keeps us from God’s favor and fellowship. Sin is this huge wall that shuts us out of heaven. Everyone in this world, without exception, is alienated from God because of sin. All men in Adam are worthy of eternal punishment on account of sin. No amount of good deeds is going to pay that price for our sin. No amount of good works is going to earn our way into heaven. The simple fact is, we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That sin has to be paid for. And we cannot pay for it. On the contrary, we daily add to our sin. Yet we, that is, man, must pay for our sin if we are to escape hell and be received back into God’s favor and fellowship again. We must bear the full burden of God’s anger against our sin. We must pay the price of hell if we are going to be received into God’s favor. Simple fact. There is no way around it. We must suffer God’s wrath in hell if we are to go to heaven.
Now, do you think we could do that? Could you do it? Does anyone think we are able to bear God’s wrath for a moment in hell and then come out of hell to experience God’s favor again? If we think we, as men, have the power to endure that wrath of God, we are sadly mistaken. God’s wrath is an eternal wrath. If I were to pay the price of my sin alone, I would have to suffer God’s wrath to all eternity. I would never be able to suffer it in a moment and then escape it the next. God’s wrath is eternal and, therefore, punishment is eternal.
The only man who is able to bear God’s eternal wrath and then live to come out from under it is One who is Himself very God. Only one who is divine would be able to bear the eternal weight of God’s anger. That is why the virgin birth is so, so significant. By means of this miraculous conception of Christ, God became man. As man, He was able to bear the sins of men. He was a fit representative of man, being a man Himself. But Christ was also God and able to bear the burden of God’s wrath against our sins and to be able to deliver us from them. Christ had to be God. If He is not God, then we are still lost in our sins. Being God, Christ was all-powerful to pay the price of sin and to deliver God’s people from their sin. We may not deny the virgin birth, then. To deny it is to make our own salvation impossible.
That is why we rejoice in Christ’s birth. God made possible in that birth what was humanly impossible: our salvation. All according to His promise. Christ’s advent, His coming and His birth, had been promised since the fall of man into sin. God’s people throughout the entire Old Testament looked for His birth. Now Christ has come. Just as God had promised He would. Our Savior, whose birth we celebrate is strong to save. God has made our salvation possible in Him. Here is Immanuel: God with us.
Let us pray.
Our Father in heaven, we thank Thee for our Immanuel, Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent into this world to save us from our sins. We thank Thee for that birth, which has made such salvation possible. May we go forth in that thankfulness in this time of year and always in our lives. And wilt Thou watch over us to guard us from sin. For Jesus’ sake we pray, Amen.