Jesus the Saviour of the World
Are you one of those people who takes a great interest in finding out exactly who your ancestors were? I wonder whether you’ve worked out your family tree and how far back you’ve gone in history. Plenty of folk do and you can do it for yourself or pay someone else to do it for you. There are websites that will help you too including sites such as ancestry.co.uk and findmypast.co.uk – I’m not recommending these by the way just noting their existence!
Matthew began his gospel account of the life of Jesus by giving us a long list of Jesus’ legal ancestors – 42 generations of them!!
In this simplified family tree Matthew used the same formula over and over again and this is the form it took:
"Abraham begat/begot Isaac"
Of course our different translations vary the exact words but the repetition is clearly visible. Some alternatives put it like this:
"Abraham fathered Isaac" or "Abraham was the father of Isaac".
However when Matthew got up to date and wrote about Jesus all things changed.
Matthew was preparing to tell us about something that was entirely new. He prepares in two ways:
Firstly, he concludes the earlier long list of Jesus’ legal ancestors summarising all that had gone before in terms of three units each containing 14 generations. This is one way in which Matthew tells us that everything that had gone before had been completed and something different was about to occur.
Secondly, he draws our attention to this new thing as he gives us the details concerning Jesus’ birth. Listen to how he introduces this:
v.18 "Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way."
This serves to introduces the fact that Jesus’ birth came about in very different circumstances to all those who had preceded him. Indeed the details concerning Jesus’ birth (or, more precisely, his conception) were utterly unlike anything else that had ever happened in history.
By now Matthew would have us sitting on the edge of our seats waiting eagerly to hear what he’s going to tell us and we should be curious to understand the significance of it all. Is what Matthew going to tell us simply an anomaly of history or does it point to something much more important than that?
Well, let’s turn for a few moments to listen to what Matthew wants to lay before us and he begins with some straightforward facts.
Mary and Joseph
Mary was engaged to be married to Joseph. In their day an engagement to be married or a ‘betrothal’ was a serious legally binding pledge of marriage. Engagements in our day don’t carry anything like the same weight of commitment and can easily be broken but then such a betrothal could only be ended by a formal divorce even though the marriage had yet to be formalised.
While we don’t have anything quite like this when it comes to marriage we do have something that is perhaps a little similar when it comes to buying a house. The crucial time in buying house comes when contracts are exchanged. At that moment a deposit is paid – it is a pledge that the rest of the money necessary to purchase the house will follow. If you back out of the purchase after contracts have been exchanged you are likely to meet with some serious consequences, you will probably forfeit all of the deposit you’ve already paid! The house had never entered into your possession but you are nevertheless seriously out of pocket.
Well Mary and Joseph had "exchange contracts" and were simply waiting for the marriage to be finalised. It should have been a happy period for the two of them. But then Matthew tells us something that looks like being a deal-
Although they were pledged to be married Mary and Joseph had no yet come together in a sexual manner and now it turns out that Mary is pregnant. Matthew doesn’t bother to tell us whether Mary herself spoke of her pregnancy to Joseph or whether it had simply become obvious as she grew ever bigger. Joseph knew that he wasn’t the father – his name would never be added in the usual way to a genealogy like the one Matthew has just written.
There was really only one conclusion that Joseph could draw and he drew it. Mary must have had relations with some other man and she was now bearing that man’s child. Joseph must have felt devastated as he saw all his plans coming apart at the seams!
Joseph was a law-
If that were the end of it I guess we might read the account as that of just one more failed relationship in a world where failed relationships are sadly all too common.
But there is a BUT in the story and what a BUT it is!! We haven’t reached the end not by a long way!
Joseph did not come quickly or easily to his decision; he struggled to know just what he should do; he wanted to do the right thing. And I imagine we all know something of what he must have felt for we’ve all had important decisions to take; we know how you keep coming back to the same subject again and again.
Well Joseph was doing just that and he was doing it as he fell asleep. During that sleep something extraordinary happened: an angel appeared to him in a dream with a message for him. This wasn’t at all usual and the message was a staggering one.
Joseph, you can safely marry Mary in the knowledge that she has not been unfaithful to you! There is another explanation and here it is.
Listen to just what the angel said:
v.20 "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."
Even the way in which the angel describes the conception sets this apart for the earlier genealogies and all that had gone before. Three other women appear in those lists and they are described in the same way:
By Tamar... by Rahab... by Ruth
But now, speaking of Mary, Matthew highlights her passivity: Jesus was not conceived by her but in her. The Holy Spirit was the source of Jesus’ origin and not merely an agent in his conception.
But why does this baby have to be so special?
After explaining to Joseph that Mary’s baby is due to divine intervention and not unfaithfulness on Mary’s part the angel goes on to focus attention on Mary’s child. What he has to say is not to be dismissed as the naive nonsense of an ignorant age – the angel spoke truth and the truth he spoke enables us to begin to make sense of these remarkable happenings. His birth is so special because he is so special and he has such a special work to accomplish!
The angel has three important things to say concerning this child.
He is the One who fulfils the prophecies of divinely inspired Scripture
v.22 "All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:"
He is the virgin-
v.23 ""Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us).
He is to bear a name that will describe his mission:
v.21 "you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
What amazing truths to learn during just one sleep! But what would Joseph do with what he now had come to know? What would his reaction be?
Well Joseph woke from his dream and we find him at once taking the messages he had heard very seriously indeed. He didn’t dismiss what he had heard and nor did he say ‘wasn’t that lovely’ but instead he learn that he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him.
He took Mary as his wife though he was careful not to engage in sexual activity with her until she had given birth to her most remarkable baby.
He discovered that the angel had spoke truthfully to him – the angel had said Mary was carrying a son and it was indeed a baby boy that she delivered into the world.
He gave this baby boy the exact name he was told to give him: Jesus, because he would save his people from their sins.
As the gospel narrative unfolds the other elements of the angel’s message were also proved to be true.
This baby boy grew to be a man who did such extraordinary things, things that were only possible because he was no mere man but because he was truly ‘God with us’.
Scriptural prophecies were fulfilled at his birth and would go on being fulfilled throughout his life as well. I can’t tell you exactly how many there were that he fulfilled but there were lots of them – some Biblical scholars put the number of them in excess of 300.
Finally, this boy, grown to be a man, went on to give his own life as a sacrifice for sin on the Cross of Calvary. When he died on that cross it wasn’t because he had done anything that deserved the death penalty but he freely took our place and died for our sins – those who trust him are no longer found to owe anything as he has cleared all our debt.
This was the way in which he would fulfil the angel’s declaration that he would save his people from their sins. The life of this special One, laid down in death, is a sacrifice that is fully sufficient for satisfying the righteous demands of a Holy God. We can be absolutely certain of this for God showed his appreciation of all that his Son had said and done by raising him from the dead on the third day!
My friends, believe what God has done for us in sending his son Jesus into the world. The incarnation was a necessary step on the way to the cross and there at Calvary God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. This wonderful event of Jesus’ birth that we celebrate at Christmas is really something worth celebrating!