Born of a virgin
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise. Mt. 1:18
Most of the time, when people talk about the arrival of Jesus in this world, the focus is on the humiliating circumstances in which he was born: the birth in a stable, laid in a feeding trough, born to humble and poor parents, welcomed by a few otherwise unknown and unimportant shepherds, and so on. And, of course, this is all true. He was born “in a low condition,” as the Shorter Catechism puts it. In many ways, Jesus’ entry into our world was totally the opposite we would expect of a king.
And yet, as Matthew tells it, this is not the whole story. In fact, Jesus came into this world in a surprising way remarkable for its surprising uniqueness. For he was born of a virgin.
Note that Matthew is very careful in the genealogy in chapter 1 not to make Jesus the physical descendant of Joseph: Joseph is the husband of Mary “of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (v. 16). The “of whom” in the Greek is singular and feminine, making it very clear that Jesus is the son of Mary alone. Matthew now expands on how this happened: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way” (v. 18).
Whereas Luke focuses on Mary in his account of the birth narrative, Matthew focuses on Joseph. He tells us that Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant during their betrothal “before they came together” – meaning, before their marriage took place when the bridegroom ceremoniously came to take his bride back to his home. This was serious, because by the pledge to be married one entered a legally binding relationship, and could only be broken by a writ of divorce. To be unfaithful at this stage was therefore considered adultery.
Which is exactly what Joseph thought had happened. He did not realize at first that she was “with child from the Holy Spirit” (v.18). So, “being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame,” he “resolved to divorce her quietly” (v. 19). I want to pause just for a moment and reflect on what this says about Joseph. As John Murray has put it, “there is something superbly noble in Joseph’s character. . . . Here is the enviable combination of uprightness and mercy, justice and tenderness.” On the one hand, Joseph’s love of God required that he divorce (what appeared to be) his unfaithful bride. On the other hand, Joseph’s love of Mary kept him from making a big to-do about it. He didn’t want to make her a public spectacle. It must have been an incredibly painful decision. But he acted in a way that was perfectly consistent with love to God and love to Mary – despite her apparent unfaithfulness.
Then the angel of God intervenes: “But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘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’” (v. 20). Joseph’s fear is probably fear of disobedience to God rather than any fear from the insults of men. Therefore, when he learns that this is of God, and that God is commanding him to go forward with the marriage, he promptly responds in obedience to the instructions of the angel: “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (v. 24-25). His obedience was immediate!
Note that two times in the text it is pointed out that Mary conceived as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit. Luke similarly, in the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God” (Lk. 1:35). This is as close as we get to the mystery of the virgin birth of our Lord. It is the work of God, and we should be content with that. For those who have a problem understanding how a virgin could become pregnant or how God could become a man, should we not say with the angel, “For nothing will be impossible with God”? (Lk. 1:37).
The Bible is clear. Jesus is not the son of Joseph. He is the son of Mary alone in a physical sense, being conceived in her by the power of the Holy Spirit. Just to underscore this point, Matthew says in verse 25 that Joseph did not know his wife until after Jesus was born. “Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body, and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.”
In this is our hope of salvation. Jesus is the Word made flesh (Jn. 1:14), and as such he is able to stand in our place, keeping the law that we have broken and suffering its penalty that we should have endured. Let us rest our faith therefore in the perfect God-man, our Savior Jesus Christ.