The Birth of Jesus Christ
Christmas is fast approaching. And while we may not have been able to visit many shops with their piped carol music playing in the background the clock continues to tick. The ongoing restrictions are doing their best to spoil our enjoyment of the festive season but the countdown continues and Christmas is approaching fast.
I wonder if you have plans to see the family this year or whether you are resigning yourself to a quiet Christmas at home on your own. Perhaps you’ve already done some mental rescheduling and you hope to celebrate Christmas 2020 in the spring of 2021.
Well, I’m not planning to save my Christmas sermons for next March or April. No, it’s time for us to rehearse the Christmas story now and in the coming couple of weeks.
It didn’t take Matthew a long time to tell us his story of the birth of Jesus. We’ve already read what he had to say and it took him just eight verses. (The Visit of the Wise Men recorded in the next chapter took place some time later though nobody seems to have told the Christmas card industry yet as they persist in placing those Wise Men in the stable that Matthew never even mentions!)
You probably need little help to recall Matthew’s description of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth but I’ll guide you along just in case you do. We’re going to begin by highlighting some of the details that Matthew records for us as a series of bullet points. My list starts like this:
· An unmarried couple
· A pregnant woman
· A looming separation
Matthew quickly introduces us to this couple and it comprises Mary and Joseph. They were serious about getting married and had already taken the first legal steps in that direction. Following the customs of their day they had become betrothed and betrothal was a serious business; it was a legal contract that committed the parties involved to getting married in the future. And because it was a legal contract there were serious consequences if you failed to meet the terms of the agreement: you couldn’t just walk away from the relationship as though nothing had happened. Of course, death would annul a betrothal – after all death tends to put an end to everything – the only other way a betrothal could be annulled was by a divorce and divorce proceedings can be significantly painful and damaging to those involved.
But no sooner has Matthew introduced us to the happy couple he tells us that they’re not that happy after all for the woman, Mary, is pregnant. Now, in our day a child conceived out of wedlock is not considered to be a big deal why worry about this pregnancy then? Well the simple reason is that Mary’s pregnancy hasn’t been brought about by her husband to be. To Joseph it looks very much like Mary has been messing around behind his back, that she’s broken her vows. After all, what else could the poor man think?
And what was he to do now? As he weighed up the options he didn’t like any of them. He’d really wanted to marry Mary but how could he now? And as he turned the thoughts round and round in his head separation kept coming to the top of the pile. He would have to break off the betrothals – he would have to institute divorce proceedings...
The next bullet points come thick and fast:
· A dream with an angel
· An angel with an explanation
· An explanation backed up by a text
We don’t know how Joseph learned about Mary’s pregnancy. We don’t know whether Mary tried to explain it all to him herself? Or did he simply notice her belly getting bigger and question her? We don’t know. But we do know that when he found out he was tormented by the news. Then one day, when he had been thinking about what he should do he fell asleep, and he had an unusual experience. As he slept he had a dream – nothing particularly unusual about that – but in this dream he saw an angel and this angel started to speak to him and what a message that angel brought!
The angel told Joseph that he needn’t fear to proceed with the marriage because Mary had not been unfaithful to him however much it might look like it. In fact Mary’s child had not been conceived in the normal way at all – she was pregnant because God had intervened directly! And to drive his message home the angel quoted a verse from one of the OT prophets that had been written some 700+ years earlier. In that verse God had made a promise and our God is wonderfully good about keeping his promises a fact to which Matthew had already drawn attention as he introduced his gospel with that long genealogy.
And Joseph believed! It might appear to be impossible to human logic but Joseph was ready to take God at his word and, you know what, that is always a safe thing to do. It is that very thing that you and I both need to do and to do so on a regular basis.
We need to trust God and to believe what he says. When you think about it for a creature to act any other way is the height of foolishness: surely our Creator can be trusted! This is why it is so important for us to read the Bible and to listen to it being read – if we refuse to hear and to heed then we won’t know what God has promised and we will miss out on God’s best and perfect plan for our lives.
Now for the last of my initial bullet points:
· A Sinful people need saving
Matthew adds this bit of information as he explains the meaning of the name to be given to the baby boy. By it Mathew points to the major reason why this baby was going to be born at all.
We’ll return to this later.
The Main Theme – is Jesus
While all these things which we have been looking at are interesting and true they are by no means to take up the bulk of our attention for they are secondary matters and do not form the main thrust of Matthew’s account.
As we think about the Christmas story we don’t want to get sidetracked – the central character is, and must always be, the baby who was born. If you forget all the other details don’t forget what Matthew has to tell us about this child for he is altogether special.
And here are the reasons why:
1. Matthew has done all he possibly can in a literary sense to have us focus on Jesus.
He began his entire gospel with Jesus’ family tree:
Mt.1:1 “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ...”
And now here as he moves on he introduces his subject matter with a straightforward heading contained in:
Mt.1:18 “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.”
2. He has a number of extraordinary things to tell us about the baby who is about to be born:
a. He is divinely named
b. He is divinely appointed
c. He is himself divine
This is important information and we must take some time to think about it.
This was part of the angel’s message to Joseph of course and we see it in v.21
“you shall call his name Jesus”
Now Jesus was not the only person who was named in this way but already he is in a very limited company indeed. The patriarch Abraham, right at the beginning of Hebrew history, was told what names to give his sons Ishmael and Isaac. These two boys stand in Scripture for the whole of humanity with one representing those born according to the flesh and the other representing those born according to promise; the one born of spiritual slavery and the other born according to the Spirit, of the free woman.
Then later in Israelite history Isaiah and Hosea were both told what to call their children. In both cases this was because their children would, in God’s purposes, serve as living reminders of the message that these two prophets had to preach.
And of course a few months before Jesus was born he was preceded by John the Baptist who too was given his name and his task from heaven. The Bible doesn’t explain why the name was given but it means “God is gracious”. The Baptist had the special, the unique, task of preparing the way of the Lord Jesus the One who is full of grace and truth.
When the name “Jesus” was declared it was immediately linked to the primary reason for his coming into the world:
v.21 “for he will save his people from their sins.”
This boy then was divinely named so that men and women might understand the purpose of his life. In fact the whole of Jesus’ life was directed by this fundamental purpose. He had come to achieve a predetermined goal. God the Father had given to Jesus a people to take care of and to provide for and the greatest need this people had related to their sin. Jesus came into the world to do for his people what they could never do for themselves – he came to save them!
I hope you don’t think that Christianity is for nice people only. If you think like that you’ll probably try to make yourself into a nice person before you come to Christ and then if you believe that you have qualified you’ll try to take some of the credit yourself for your ‘salvation’.
But this verse tells us something very different. Jesus’ people, all of them, have a problem with sin. To put it another way none of Jesus’ people have attained the qualifying standard and would all miss out if it were not for the fact that Jesus came especially to help them. And by help I don’t mean that he somehow makes up the deficit by adding his goodness to our own. No, he saves sinners from their sin by dealing with it completely.
Have you trusted him to deal with your sin yet? Or are you still hoping that there is something about your life that is good enough to satisfy the claims of a Holy God? Friends, the Christmas story focuses upon the birth of the One, the only One, who can save you and he is willing and able to do so. Now that is good news to receive at Christmas!
Matthew began this section of his gospel with the words:
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.”
And we can pass over this so quickly as we’re so used to the words and to the idea that Jesus Christ is the name of our Saviour. But Jesus is his name and Christ is actually a title. Matthew by adding this title points us to the fact that Jesus was divinely appointed to carry out his mission of saving his people.
The word “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Messiah and it refers to “the anointed One”. Jesus was this “Anointed One”, the One set apart to fulfil all the tasks attributed to the long-promised Messiah and this is a truth widely attested to later in the gospels and particularly by Jesus himself who liked to declare that he came to do the will of the one who sent him, the one who had appointed him. For example in John’s gospel we find Jesus saying:
Jn.6:38 “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.
Jn.8:29 “he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.”
The Old Testament Scriptures spoke of the coming Messiah who would be God’s anointed One to deliver not only Israel but all mankind. Most Jewish people living at the time of Jesus believed the Anointed One, the Messiah, would physically save them from their oppression under Roman rule. They did not recognize that the prophets foretold of a much greater freedom.
And Satan continues to do everything in his power to mislead, blind, confuse and distract people, from understanding that Jesus has come, the Anointed One, to secure this greater freedom: he came to spiritually save us from bondage to sin, and to offer us eternal spiritual freedom.
The prophets foretold many details about the Messiah and Isaiah’s prophecy contains this description of his ministry:
Is.61:1 “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound...”
You may remember that Jesus later read this passage in the synagogue in Nazareth. After reading it out to the gathered congregation Jesus sat down to teach and the opening words of his sermon that day were impressive:
Lk.4:21 “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus was divinely anointed and commissioned to carry out his ministry and that ministry was a great one.
· Anointed to Serve
And he did so as the Suffering Servant of Is. ch.53. He came to fulfil our irreparable need of reconciliation to God. He proved Himself a humble servant offering us undeserved love and grace.
· Anointed to Suffer and Die
The Bible is clear that it was man’s sin that placed Jesus on the executioner’s stake but he came sent by the Father in order to suffer and die on our behalf.
He was stricken for the transgression of his people – it was the will of the LORD to crush him (Is.53:8, 10a). And “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Is.53:5).
There was a purpose and a goal beyond the immediate suffering and death: Jesus was
· Anointed to Save
He took upon Himself the penalty that we deserve for our sin and in doing so, He provided for and offered us complete atonement.
“My righteous servant will justify many, and He will carry their iniquities.” (Is.53:11b). HCSB
· Anointed to Rise
Nor would death be the end of him! The Scriptures prophesied that God’s Anointed One would suffer and die, they also declared that he would also rise from the dead. And Jesus did just that.
And there is still more. After his resurrection he ascended to heaven where he has taken his place at God’s right hand and from there he is:
· Anointed to Return
This time however he will not suffer nor will he die again but coming in glory he is:
· Anointed to Reign
And the reign of the Messiah will be an eternal reign.
“he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Lk.1:33).
Divinely named and divinely appointed to extraordinary office – but how could anyone carry out and fulfil such a plan and such a purpose?
Well the answer is that not “anyone” could. To fulfil all that was prophesied concerning the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, it would take someone exceedingly special and exceedingly important and that is exactly who we find Jesus to be!
How wonderfully all the details of the plan, God’s plan fit together!
Three factors combine here in these verses to highlight the divine character and nature of the baby who was to be born at Bethlehem.
Firstly, he is conceived by the Holy Spirit. Yes, he is born a man-child but while fully sharing our humanity he is a man-child like none other for he is Deity.
Secondly, the meaning of the name Jesus points to the same truth. The name Jesus means “The Lord saves”. Now in a lesser sense it was given to other babies testifying to the truth that only the Lord can and does save but in Jesus case it means more – it fully signifies that “this is the Lord who saves”.
Thirdly, Matthew refers to another name which will apply to the baby. And remember names are not just labels they are descriptive of character in the Bible. And this baby shall be known as Immanuel! “God with us.” Now, yes, it can testify to the objective truth that “God is with us” but in Jesus’ case it signifies more much more. It tells us that when Jesus is with us God is with us for he himself is God!
Jesus the God-Man is fully able to complete his mission. He has already completed a very large part of it and we can trust him to carry out the rest as well!
What a wonderful way to begin the Christmas season this year by reminding ourselves of the person who is at the centre of it all. As you think over the Christmas story again this year make sure amidst everything else that you do see him and that you put your trust in him. May he truly save you from your sins and may you genuinely be one of his people.
And to God be the glory.