In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Our passage today is Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. And we’re probably pretty familiar with this story – if not the text – because it’s part of the usual telling of the Christmas story. At Christmas, we usually tend to emphasize particular themes. So, for example, when we read these passages, we note the virgin birth of Jesus and think about the miracle of the incarnation. And we note the three magi who visited Jesus and note the theme of kingship (which is heightened by the magi’s encounter with Herod, who would see Jesus as a competitor, perhaps). We note the birth in Bethlehem (not Jerusalem, for example), which may point to the humility of Jesus.
All of these themes have truth and merit. However, the question we want to ask is, “what is Matthew doing with these passages?” We want to note that, when Matthew wrote his gospel, the gospel of Mark probably already existed. So why write another one? What is Matthew doing that is different than what Mark did? And so, we want to note that one of the primary questions that Matthew is trying to answer is, “Is Jesus really the Messiah?”
Well firstly, it’s worth noting that Mark doesn’t include a birth narrative at all. And Matthew tells his story of Jesus’ birth differently than does Luke. Looking at Matthew’s account, he tells us:
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”Matthew 1:18-21
And then Matthew tells us:
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).Matthew 1:22-23
If you look at your footnotes, you’ll see that Matthew is referring to a passage from Isaiah 7:14:
14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.Isaiah 7:14
Now this passage from Isaiah is from the story of King Ahaz of Judah. In the time when the Israelite people are under the thumb of foreign rulers, Ahaz is being pressured from the kingdom of Israel and other city-states to join a coalition to rebel against Assyria. Ahaz doesn’t want to do this and, in fact, wants to turn to Assyria for protection. But to turn to Assyria, instead of YHWH, would be a betrayal of the terms of the covenant.
The prophet Isaiah meets with Ahaz and tells him to have faith in Yahweh. He tells Ahaz to ask for a sign (which Ahaz doesn’t want to do as he sees it as evidence of poor faith). Isaiah tells Ahaz that, despite his faithlessness, God will give a sign anyways. And that the sign will be that a young woman (virgin) will be married and will give birth to a child, and by the time the child is old enough to know right from wrong, the kingdoms that Ahaz fears will disappear.
Now Ahaz doesn’t listen. But nevertheless, God’s sign is carried out. A child is born and by the time the child is old enough to know right from wrong, those kingdoms are defeated.
So, in other words, the word to Ahaz by Isaiah the prophet has to do with God’s faithfulness in the midst of highly uncertain times for the Israelites. God is saying to Ahaz, don’t turn to foreign powers, don’t trust the things of the world, trust that God will be faithful to his covenant. And here is the sign that God is and will be faithful.
And so, by using this passage from Isaiah, Matthew is pointing to the birth of Jesus as that sign renewed. Once again, a young woman (a virgin) will conceive and give birth to a child, and that child will be the sign of God’s faithfulness and of God’s promise.
Now turning to the story of the magi. We read:
2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magifrom the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:Matthew 2:1-5
And then we get another Old Testament reference:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,Matthew 2:6
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
This is from Micah 5:2
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,Micah 5:2
though you are small among the clansof Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.”
This text in Micah is given to the Israelite people while they are in great distress. They are in exile, having lost their land, their nationhood, their very identity as a people. Into this context, they are told that a ruler will raise them up and that ruler will come out of Bethlehem – just as David came from Bethlehem.
And so, Matthew is pointing to Jesus as that one born in Bethlehem, not merely sharing David’s place of birth, but part of David’s lineage. Matthew is pointing to this as evidence, once again, that Jesus bears the marks of the one through whom God will restore His people.
So What Now…?
The passage that we looked at today contain two out of five Old Testament references in chapters 1-2. And I tell you this simply to say that our message today is very much to be continued. And as we look at the rest of chapter 2 next week, one of the things we’ll consider in more detail is how exactly (or generally) these Old Testament references are “fulfilled” in Jesus. But for today, I want to just reflect on the two OT references that we talked about today.
Both the passage from Isaiah and the passage from Micah are words spoken to an Israel that is in turmoil. They are uncertain of who they are, they are uncertain of where they are, and they are uncertain where God is in all of it. They are wondering if God still remembers His people and His promises. And they are wondering if there is a better way – a way better than Yahweh, gods more powerful than Yahweh, or at least gods more helpful than Yahweh.
The people during Matthew’s time are wondering exactly the same thing. They have been under foreign rule as long as they can remember. They have been swallowed up by Rome, all of the so-called Messiahs have come and gone and they are still in the same place, in the same circumstances. If Jesus really was the Messiah, shouldn’t things be different? Shouldn’t things be better? And they are wondering if Jesus really is the way. They are wondering if there is someone better, someone more powerful, or someone more helpful.
And aren’t we still, two thousand years later, faced with the same thing? We have been waiting thousands of years for Gods’ kingdom in its fullness. We have been following Jesus the best that we can (we think) and we’re still very much in the same place, with the same challenges, with the same struggles. And there are so many offers of a better way in this world around us. There are so many promises of a better way, a better religion or philosophy of life, to get what we want, what we think we deserve. Why, especially in this world, should we follow, should we believe, Jesus?
And to all of this, Matthew says to us – Jesus is the one. Jesus is the one we have been waiting for. Jesus is the one we’ve been hoping for. Jesus is the one whom God has promised, through whom God brings His redemption and restores His kingdom. Jesus is the sign, the promise, and indeed the redemption itself. Because He alone is the way, the truth, and the life.
So, as we work our way through the gospel according to Matthew, we are going to do our best to pay attention. We’re going to see how Jesus is the promised one, and we’re going to try to understand what the redemption is that Jesus brings, what is the kingdom that Jesus brings. And by understanding what God is doing through Jesus, we hope to also understand what it is that He is doing in us.