24 December 2011

Matthew 1:18-23

"She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." (v. 21)


Matthew's Gospel opens with a long genealogy (Matthew 1:1-17) listing all the generations between Abraham and Jesus in order to show that Jesus was descended from Abraham and David, and that the arrival of the Messiah came at the end of the three periods in the history of Israel, marked by Abraham, David, the Babylonian exile and finally the birth of Jesus. The narrative of Jesus' life then begins with today's passage.

Unlike the Gospel of Mark, which was probably written earlier and begins with Jesus' Baptism by John, Matthew begins with the birth of Jesus. For many, it will be difficult to read these words afresh because of their familiarity, but it seems like an unusual start in life for a Messiah. Unlike all the other figures in the long list of generations, Jesus does not have a father. Matthew tells us that Mary "was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit" (v. 18) and that Joseph wanted to end their engagement quietly, to avoid disgracing her. An angel tells him instead to take Mary as his wife and name the child 'Jesus', because he will save his people from their sins.

In Isaiah chapter 7, Isaiah promises the people a sign: "Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14). Matthew quotes this verse because he sees the birth of Jesus as the fulfilment of this prophecy. Notice that in Isaiah the translation is "young woman", whereas in Matthew it is translated as "virgin". This translation is a traditional one, and is in line with the view of Christian theologians, who have argued that Jesus must have been born of a virgin in order to be free of the sin of the humanity. We should be aware, however, that it is not clear that this is what Matthew had in mind.

To Ponder

How would you have expected the great Messiah of Israel to have been born?

What do you make of the figure of Joseph, who is not mentioned again by Matthew after the birth narrative, at the end of which he brings Mary and Jesus back from Egypt to Israel (Matthew 2:21)?

Bible notes author

David Clough

David Clough is Professor of Theological Ethics in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Chester. He is a Methodist local preacher, a member of the Joint Advisory Committee on the Ethics of Investment and the Faith and Order Network and drafted recent reports on peacemaking and climate change on behalf of the Methodist Church.