This week I’ll be posting some on the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. I began yesterday with some thoughts on the genealogy in Matthew, and today it’s all about virgins, the Spirit, and angels. And, of course, Joseph.
That’s right. Joseph. The great announcement to Mary? We’ll need to go to Luke for that. Matthew is concerned more with the dad, running the genealogy in chapter 1 through “Joseph, who was engaged to Mary, through whom came Jesus who is called the Messiah.”
In v. 18, after the genealogy, Matthew reiterates the “generations”/”genesis” language of verse 1: the “generation” of the Messiah was like this (v. 18). And the first thing we learn is that the baby is “of the holy Spirit,” not “of Joseph.”
The circumstances of Messiah’s birth are thus socially sketchy. I mean, come on, we all know how that happens. And so does Joseph. But an angel comes to him and transforms his interpretive grid. And here we start to fill in what sort of Christ this is going to be.
First, it is surely no accident that Joseph is greeted as “son of David.” That’s a distant ancestor, but with significant resonance. This is the son of the great king, a man who is about to have a son himself.
The angel names the baby: he will be Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. It will take the rest of the book to discover what this means, but Jesus is coming to perform a certain function–his “exile ending” ministry will save people from the guilt? the power? the presence? the effects? the doing? of their sins.
Probably all of these. Much like the theme of “love” takes us beyond the manger to the cross, the theme of “salvation” takes us through Jesus’ kingdom-proclaiming and kingdom-bringing ministry and probably even into the sending of the eleven to carry Jesus’ mission to the ends of the earth.
Matthew, as we said last time, is concerned with “fulfillment.” And here we see the first glimpse of what this might mean. The story we’ve just heard: a virgin birth, a coming savior, a son of David–all this takes place to fulfill the prophet’s words, “Behold! A virgin will conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Emmanuel,” which is translated, “God is with us.”
Scholars will tell you that “virgin” in Isaiah’s prophecy meant young girl, not “one who had not had sexual relations with a man.” And they’re right. Scholars will tell you that Isaiah’s prophecy had to have been fulfilled within about 12-16 years to fit the context of Isaiah 7. And they’re right.
But Matthew sees Jesus “fulfilling” the story of Israel by taking it on and living it out in surprising ways–ways you could not imagine if you were simply reading the Bible forwards from Genesis through Revelation. Here “virgin” comes to mean something else, and the prophecy is transformed.
And the verse sets us on a trajectory. What for Matthew is likely a citation that affirms God is with his people in the sense of being faithful to “visit” them with salvation, becomes in later reflection a literal birth of God in human flesh.
But for Matthew, we have first and foremost a king, a savior king, one new-created by the spirit of God in the womb of a virgin in order to be God’s instrument to save. Israel’s long promised salvation is at the door. God is with us.