Study Guide: The Incarnation (Matthew 1:18-25)

Read: Isaiah 7:14

Study notes

  • At the time of Isaiah’s writing, Judah was under threat of attack and would eventually be conquered by the Assyrian Empire. In the midst of this dark period of Israel’s history, God promised to restore justice, peace, and order through a savior known as the Messiah (Hebrew for “anointed/chosen one”).  According to Isaiah, this Messiah’s miraculous birth to a virgin mother would be a signal to God’s people that their savior had come.
  • Keep in mind that Isaiah lived and wrote about 700 years before Jesus was born.

Read: Matthew 1:18-24

Study notes

  • Mary and Joseph were “betrothed”. This was not the same as our modern practice of engagement. Betrothal was a legally binding contract that could only be broken through a formal divorce. It was the period leading up to the wedding day, where the bride and groom’s marriage would be made official through sexual intercourse, among other things.
  • Mary and Joseph had not consummated their marriage yet, but Mary was found to be pregnant with a baby that was not Joseph’s. Had this news gone public, it would have been a big scandal. Rumors about Mary would have spread and she would have been put to shame – and possibly even killed. However, Joseph had compassion on Mary and he planned to divorce her quietly.
  • The angel informed Joseph that the Holy Spirit, God himself, had conceived a baby in Mary’s womb. Mary had not committed any sin. The angel instructed Joseph to name the baby Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins”. The name Jesus comes from the Hebrew “Yeshua” (Joshua) meaning “God is salvation”.
  • Numerous Old Testament references in Matthew’s gospel connect Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection to the prophecies written about the Messiah and the story of Israel.

Theological Themes and Application

After Jesus’ genealogy, Matthew dives straight into the story of Jesus Christ’s birth. Notice how he is not particularly concerned with covering every minor detail surrounding Jesus’ miraculous birth. If Abraham Lincoln, for example, had been born of a virgin, there would be entire volumes dedicated solely to the circumstances surrounding his birth. Theories and conspiracies would abound. But Matthew is content to recognize the virgin birth for what it truly was: a divine, incomprehensible mystery. He immediately refers the reader to Isaiah 7:14, where, hundreds of years before this incident took place, God promised to bring into the world the savior of humanity, who would be Immanuel (עִמָּ֫נוּאֵ֫ל , “with us is God”). Matthew’s gospel is absolutely saturated with Old Testament imagery, with numerous direct quotations and references to the story of Israel, the Law, and the prophets — especially Deuteronomy and Isaiah — connecting the life of Jesus of Nazareth to these foundational Jewish texts. Why? Most likely because Matthew was writing to a primarily Jewish audience. Matthew’s goal in writing his gospel was evangelistic in nature. His purpose was to show the Jewish people that Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah; he was (and is) the fulfillment of God’s Old Testament promises; the new and perfect Israel through whom God would bring his blessing to the nations.

There is much to learn from the story of Jesus’ birth. You might notice the faith of Mary, or the astounding loyalty and righteousness of her husband Joseph. But the story of Christ’s birth is first and foremost a story of God’s indescribable grace and mercy. God saw the effects of human sin on the world, how it caused death, disease, and suffering in his good creation, and, rather than allow the earth to tear itself apart, God took the initiative, entered into our brokenness, and provided humanity with the way back to himself — Jesus. God’s solution did not come through human will or earthly methods, but through the miraculous conception of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, in the womb of a virgin. It was, in many respects, a “divine invasion.”[1] With humanity on the fast-track to death, our loving and merciful God opened the door to eternal life.

Our mentality when reading Scripture is so often, “What is this passage asking me to do or change or repent of?” We’ve gotten so used to the proverbial “three sermon points”, each of which includes a specific “task” to accomplish for that particular week. Based on this passage, should we pray for the boldness of Mary, or the humble submission of Joseph? Should we look for areas on our lives that are not fully surrendered to God and give them over to him? Sure. This story certainly offers several examples of faith toward which we should certainly strive. But what this passage calls us to do, above all, is humble ourselves before God in worship and thanksgiving in response to the unfathomable grace we have received in Christ. The God of the universe, the flawless, eternal Creator, loved us so much and was so utterly heartbroken by our sinful suffering, that he emptied himself of his heavenly privileges, took upon himself human flesh, and entered into our world to rescue us from sin. Unfortunately, our Americanized, “three sermon point” method of reading Scripture so often causes us to overlook the beautiful, profound, eternal truth that the Bible urges us to hold on to: God loves us. God loves you. And his unconditional love for us is demonstrated by the coming of Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God with us.

[1] Knox Chamblin. Matthew: A Mentor Commentary, vol. 1. p. 198

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