Matthew’s Birth Narrative: Matthew 1:18–25

Introduction

Matthew is the Jewish gospel writer. Throughout his gospel, Matthew is concerned with showing Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. To convince his audience of the validity of the claim that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, Matthew pays close attention to the teaching of Jesus and juxtaposes them with the actions of the Jewish leaders. Matthew is very concise in his description of events, often using far fewer words to describe the events when compared to the other synoptic gospels[1] and draws upon the Old Testament, showing Jesus as fulfilling the prophecies of the Messiah. The challenge Matthew has is that for several hundred years before Jesus was born, the common understanding was that the Messiah would be a conquering king and rid his people of the cursed heavy-handed Romans. The birth narratives in Matthew 1:18–25 contains all of the characteristics of Matthew’s approach, he provides a verse concise summation of events as he focuses mainly on using the life of Jesus and the meter to exegete the Old Testament, and he helps to align the readers understanding that Jesus does come as a savior but perhaps not the kind of savior that the people had expected.

Matthew and the Old Testament

The issue Matthew is addressing in the periscope is the Virgin Birth. R. C. Sproul calls the Virgin Birth “… a watershed doctrine, separating orthodox Christians from those who do not believe in the resurrection and atonement.”[2] Some have argued that Matthew is defending the Virgin Birth against some that accused Jesus of illegitimate birth[3]; however, this seems unlikely considering that the Jews in John 6 seemed to have accepted Joseph as Jesus’ father: “Is not this … the son of Joseph, …”[4] Matthew’s primary concern is connecting Jesus in the mind of his readers with the long-awaited and prophesied savior. There are three indicators in the periscope that show Matthew’s desire to explain Jesus’ virgin birth as related to the Old Testament.

First, Matthew establishes Joseph as “just man.” At no time does this attribute to Joseph get taken back. Matthew clearly wants to show that Joseph believed the Jesus was conceived virginally, because being a just man Joseph would have engaged his right under the Law to divorce Marry, privately, before two witnesses.[5] This narrative is to lend legitimacy to the virgin birth narrative.

Second and probably most compelling, Matthew say “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet.”[6] Matthew makes it perfectly clear he wants his reader to see the connection between Jesus, and the prophesy in Isaiah about a son born of a virgin. It is no coincidence that Matthew said, the Lord had spoken through the prophet. Matthew is clearly setting up for the argument that Jesus predicted his own virgin birth through Isaiah.

Third, Matthew directly quotes from the Old Testament in connection with Jesus. If a virgin gave birth, to a Jewish mind, it would be hard to avoid concluding that the son that was born was the Messiah. Matthew starts then with this virgin birth to anchor the rest of his text as he makes the argument for Jesus. Matthew knows that even though he does not directly site it, his Jewish readers will know the words from Isaiah that the virgin birth is a sign from “the Lord himself.”[7] The sign giver in Isaiah’s words is אֲדֹנָ֥ (Adonai) and Jesus makes himself to be this in Matthew 22 when he quotes from Psalm 110: Yhwh said to Adonai sit at my right hand.[8]

Parallel of Passage Events and the History of Israel

One of the most salient parallels is that of dreams. This would have been accepted by the Jewish reader that God communicates through dreams because of the parallels found in the life of Joseph in the Old Testament who dreamed sheaves of wheat[9] and the sun, moon and stars.[10] Matthew assumes that his readers understand the authority of dream messages that come from God. Because Joseph, the father of Jesus, is having the dream, probably leads Matthew to focus so much on Joseph in his narrative when compared to the other gospels such as Luke who focuses primarily on Mary. Luke’s focus on Mary might be attributed to the fact that when Luke was writing, Joseph would have been dead by that time.[11]

A second parallel exists in the powerful connection in Matthew’s text to the creation account. The Holy Spirit is seen as the agent in Genesis 1 that brings about Gods creation. This same Holy Spirit is depicted by Matthew as “the agent in Jesus’ conception” [12] and Matthew clearly intended to depict “[t]he agency of the Spirit in bringing the Messianic age.”[13] Nolland points out that even in how Matthew words “τὸ γεννηθὲν ἔστιν ἐκ, which creates a measure of separation between the verb,”[14] is intended to separate the idea of God’s work in Mary’s conception from the visceral human male role. Matthew, as carried on by the Holy Spirit, wants the reader to think of God as creating life in Mary’s womb in a supernatural way.

Similarities of Audience and Background the Old Testament time and Writing of Matthew

Matthew primarily uses the Septuagint in his citations and he often modifies it to make the meaning he is getting at plainer.[15] Matthew does precisely that in his citation from Isaiah 7:14. He adjusts the word καλέσεις[16] (he will call) to the word καλέσουσιν[17] (they will call). Matthew probably feels the need to adjust the wording due to the massive expectation placed on the messiah by the Jews of his day. Even the apostles, after years with Jesus, where expecting an imminent kingdom as they fought over who would sit at his right and left hand when he ruled.[18] The common people wanted to make him king according to John.[19] This fever pitch for a messianic king was not a new issue. Judas Maccabeus’ was probably the most famous of the Christ figures that had taken the stage prior to Jesus. Jesus was not the last contender in this saga either. A man by the name of Barcocheba[20] claimed and defended the title of messiah up until the 70 A.D. crushing of Jerusalem.  Barcocheba was able to do that because the Jews wanted a military leader. This climate is why Matthew was so precise in his wording, not only in the additional adjustment of he to the they in the Isaiah citation but also when Matthew carefully cites the Angel’s words “…for he [Jesus] will save his people from their sins.”[21] Matthew wants no mistake in his readers minds, Jesus is not to be confused with the military leaders that have and will come claiming to be the Messiah; Jesus is the Messiah because he fulfils the prophecy about him.

Matthew is also opening a door that has long been thought to be shut and that is continued revelation from God. In connecting Jesus with the Old Testament as the fulfiller of these prophecies, Matthew is saying that the 400-year silence is over, God has sent the Messiah to exegete the Old Testament.

Conclusion

Matthew 1:18–25 was written for the express purpose of portraying Jesus as the Messiah that Israel needed, however, history shows that he was not the messiah people wanted. Matthew provides a concise and careful citation of both Isaiah and the angel in Joseph’s dream as he shows that Jesus is the measure of the Old Testament and what it says about him is important; Matthew then draws the reader’s attention to Jesus as savior not from any earthly enemy, but that enemy which no earthly power can overcome, sin. Matthew’s case is simple, Jesus is the Messiah not because of massive military victories, not because of all the miracles he performed, but because he fulfilled the prophesies he made about himself through the prophets in scripture.

 

 

[1]. Mark L.Strauss. 2007. Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 217

[2] R. C. Sproul, ed., The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015), 1782.

[3]. R. E. Brown. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1977.

[4]. John 6:42.

[5]. Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah : A New Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 447.

[6]. Matthew 1:22.

[7]. Isaiah 7:14.

[8]. Matthew 22:44.

[9]. Genesis 37:7.

[10]. Genesis 37:9.

[11]. John 19:26-27.

[12]. R. T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 1, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 82.

[13]. R. T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 1, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 82.

[14]. John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2005), 93.

[15]. Paul D. Wegner, “Isaiah, Theology Of,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, electronic ed., Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 379.

[16]. Septuaginta: With Morphology, electronic ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1979), Is 7:14.

[17]. Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Mt 1:23.

[18]. Matthew 20:21.

[19]. John 6:15.

[20]. Eusebius of Caesaria, “The Church History of Eusebius,” in Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 177.

[21]. Matthew 1:21.

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