A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on April 15, 2018.
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).
The genealogy of Jesus Christ concludes with this description: “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Matt. 1:16). This straight-forward birth record leads into the following section, which begins: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” The genealogy of Jesus is paternal. “Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob… and Jesse the father of David the king” (Matt. 1:1-2,6).
While five mothers are included in the genealogy, their inclusion appears to be for theological reasons rather than ancestral, until it gets to Mary. A casual reading of the English translation (“Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born”) could lead to the assumption that this is a parental description, like “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar” (Matt. 1:3), or “Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab” (Matt. 1:4), or “Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth” (Matt. 1:5), or “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah” (Matt. 1:6).
The structure of the sentence, however, is entirely different with Joseph and Mary: “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.” Matthew, in the very grammar of this sentence, is telling us that something is different. Jesus was not born of Joseph and Mary. While not obvious in English, in the original Greek it is quite obvious. The pronoun translated “whom” in Greek is both singular and feminine, connecting to the noun Mary. In other words, Jesus was not born of Joseph and Mary but of Mary individually.
This, of course, requires explanation, which is precisely what Matthew does: “Now the birth of Jesus took place 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.” Joseph and Mary did not have pre-marital sexual intercourse, nor was Mary sexually promiscuous.
The Gospel of Luke explains that the angel Gabriel appeared “to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:27). Gabriel revealed to Mary that God’s favor was upon her and told her, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:31). Despite this supernatural revelation, Mary knew there existed one essential natural impediment. She asked Gabriel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). If God created this world with specific natural laws, then the only way a virgin may conceive a child is by sovereign intervention.
Gabriel explained to Mary the miraculous: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). A child without the seed of Adam but of God, born of a virgin, a Son of man, the Son of God. Or, as Matthew succinctly puts it, “she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”
Betrothal in ancient Judaism was different than our modern practice of an “engagement.” Betrothal was legally binding and required a divorce to break. Though maritally binding, it did not allow for living together or sexual relations until a formal marriage ceremony. So, what do you do when you are legally betrothed to a woman who is unexpectedly pregnant? Public shame? Legal prosecution? Murder?
Joseph chose none of the above: “Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” The word translated “just” here can also be translated “righteous.” In our vernacular we would say, “He is a good man.” He did not want her to be shamed. He would privately, quietly, discreetly divorce her. That would be all. But, God intervened with a sovereign revelation.
As Joseph contemplated his plans for divorce, God sent an angel to Joseph in a dream. The angel commanded, “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.” Mary was indeed pregnant but not unfaithful. She was not pregnant by man but God. But, as a son of David, God would use Joseph as Mary’s husband.
The angel continued, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” He would marry her. He would be her husband. The child would be born into his household, legally a son of David. He would name the child not Joseph but Jesus. Why Jesus? Why that name? It is a name that means “Yahweh is salvation” or “the LORD saves.” Of this name the angel reveals: “you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Joseph awoke from a night’s sleep unlike no other, a sleep in which the sovereign revelation of God had been given to this good man, a son of David. So, he did what God told him to do, plain and not so simple. He married that pregnant girl. He had no sexual relations with her before their marriage or until after the child was born. And, as instructed, “he called his name Jesus.” God sovereignly intervened in time and space and a virgin was with child. He sovereignly revealed His plan to a good man who had every right to leave. What God ordains He accomplishes by His sovereign fulfillment.
After explaining the way in which Jesus’ birth took place, Matthew then explains, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet.” The “prophet” he means is Isaiah, and he quotes from the seventh chapter: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” The verse from Isaiah uniquely parallels Matthew’s account: Mary, a virgin, conceived and bore a child. The difference, however, comes in the name of the child.
Joseph, as instructed, named the child “Jesus,” which means “the LORD saves.” Isaiah prophesied that he would be called “Immanuel,” which Matthew translates, “God with us.” Yet, the difference speaks to One and the same. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). God sent forth His Son into time and space, God with us. He became human with us that He might “sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15), Immanuel. And, through His righteous life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection the Lord Jesus saves. He is Jesus our Immanuel. It is through God’s sovereign intervention, sovereign revelation, and sovereign fulfillment that we, His people, are saved from our sins.
This gospel theme of intervention, revelation, and fulfillment pertains not only to virgin birth, angelic revelation, and prophetic fulfillment, but it also pertains to you. If you are in Christ, then God has sovereignly intervened in your life. Through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, you have been born again, justified, adopted, and being sanctified in Christ. Just as miraculous is the virgin birth, so also is the miracle that we who were dead spiritually have been given life in Christ. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4-5).
If you are in Christ, then God has sovereignly revealed Himself to you through His Word. Our imaginations are captivated by the sensational, like an angelic revelation to Joseph. Yet, we have the revealed will of God, not in a dream but in a book, the Bible. In this book, God has sovereignly revealed the gospel to us that we might be saved through Jesus, and “Blessed…are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28). The written Word of God is His sovereign revelation!
If you are in Christ, then God has sovereignly fulfilled your salvation, a fulfillment foreordained before the foundation of the world, a fulfillment promised in the Garden of Eden, a fulfillment declared by the prophets. You are the recipient of God’s sovereign fulfillment in the perfect life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus, our Immanuel, the perfectly righteous, atoning, living Savior of His people.
And, the glorious truth about this sovereign intervention, revelation, and fulfillment is just as Mary had nothing to do with her supernatural conception, and just as Joseph had nothing to do with his angelic dream, and just as God sovereignly orchestrated the fulfillment of His prophecy, so also “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8–10).
Because our salvation is a sovereign salvation, let us join the chorus of heaven singing, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen” (Rev. 7:12).