Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matt. 1:18-25)
As we read this story regarding the birth of Christ that we are all so familiar with, we often fail to realize the seriousness of the situation. In first-century Israel, betrothal was a serious matter. Marriages were pre-arranged by the parents of the bride and groom. This being the case, the parents of the bride would have chosen a man to marry their daughter who came from a family with a good reputation, a man who himself had a good reputation in the community, someone faithful to the Torah. Likewise, the parents of the groom would have chosen a wife for their son who came from an upstanding family and whom herself would have been an upstanding and virtuous woman. Furthermore, a betrothal arrangement entailed the partial payment of the bride-price to Mary’s parents. A betrothed person can only nullify the betrothal if they discover some serious sin in the other person, which would impugn both the reputation of the other person and their family. But worst of all is what might happen to Joseph or Mary, depending on his decision. Joseph is a righteous man who wants to honor God’s law and does not want to shame his parents, but to proceed with the marriage would be to condone Mary’s perceived infidelity. However, he also knows that according to Old Testament Law, Mary could be put to death for adultery (Deut 22:22). In the end, because of the dream, “he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took [Mary as] his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son.”
What is so significant about this passage is that twice we are told that that which is conceived in Mary is from the Holy Spirit (vv.18, 20). Matthew wants us to understand that Jesus is not the product of human genetics, human procreation. In the miracle of Christ’s conception in the virgin Mary’s womb, the divine nature of God was forever united to a human nature. Matthew also makes it a point to tell us that Jesus would fulfill the meaning of the name given to the Messiah in Isaiah 7:14, Immanuel--God with us. Matthew wants his readers to understand that Jesus is Immanuel because Jesus is God. This is important because to deny the virgin birth is to deny the deity of Christ. To deny the deity of Christ is to deny his salvific work on the cross. So also, to deny the full humanity of Christ is to deny the salvific work of Christ on the cross. If Jesus is not fully God and fully human, then we are all still in our sins and are without hope in the world. This is how and why Christ is able to “save his people from their sins.” Advent reminds us of this glorious truth!
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