As we heard read for us earlier during the lighting of this week’s Advent candle, the focus of the fourth Sunday in Advent is Mary, Jesus’ mother, who while a virgin miraculously conceived and gave birth to Jesus, eternal God who took on human flesh in order that we might know, believe, receive, and love him as Savior and Lord. Now whereas Luke’s account of the revelation of Jesus focuses upon Mary, Matthew’s account focuses upon Joseph. I’ve chosen Matthew’s recounting because he addresses how Jesus’ coming fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy which promises that “the Lord himself will give you a sign”—that sign being that the virgin will become pregnant with Immanuel or, to use Isaiah’s words, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”

As Matthew opens his Gospel, he begins by providing an account of the origin or “the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham.” As we’ve noted before, the word “Messiah” is the Hebrew equivalent of “Christ” in the Greek. Both words mean “Anointed One.” Therefore, Jesus is the “Anointed One,” the One whom God has chosen. Jesus is the One who fulfills God’s Old Testament promises to one day send Messiah.

Having introduced Jesus the Messiah by summarizing the “fourteen generations…from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah” as stated in verse 17 of chapter 1, Matthew then turns to the birth of this promised Messiah who is identified as Jesus. As stated in verse 18, “This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.” In this one verse it’s evident that Jesus’ birth began with the profound mystery of a virgin, a young woman “pledged to be married” who, despite being a virgin found herself pregnant. Given the truth of God’s Word, it’s clear that what is being described isn’t a matter of Mary and Joseph having given in to the common temptation found among engaged couples who, assuming they will soon be married, yield to the temptation of consummating their love prior to their wedding day and thereby find themselves pregnant for, as we’ll see, when Joseph learns of Mary’s pregnancy, he plans to divorce her quietly. And Matthew states clearly that her pregnancy occurred “before they came together.” Nor is it the case, as Joseph initially suspected, that Mary had had intimate relations with someone else for in Luke’s account when the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she would be Jesus’ mother, she—knowing that she had never been sexually intimate—responded by asking him, “How will this be…since I am a virgin?”[1] No, humanly speaking, Mary’s pregnancy was an impossibility since she had never been sexually intimate with any man. The impossible became possible only by the will and power of God. As Luke’s account goes on to state, the angel Gabriel answered Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”[2] Matthew similarly declares, “she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.”

So we see how both Matthew and Luke pinpoint the work of the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity, in explaining how it is that Mary, a virgin, will be able to give birth despite being a virgin. Now it’s important that we accept this for the miracle that it is and not try to explain it in human terms by suggesting, for example, that a divine sperm fertilized a human egg. No, what occurred to Mary cannot be explained by natural or scientific laws. Again, it’s a miracle just as Matthew and Luke have described it for apart from the power of God, the birth of Messiah by a virgin would be impossible. Whereas new parents may express their wonder at the birth of their child by calling it a “miracle,” this is hyperbolic language—even if a pregnancy has been difficult, the union of husband and wife resulting in a child isn’t miraculous, but natural. It’s the way God designed us. No, the only genuinely miraculous birth that has ever occurred is that of Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Christ, whose virgin mother was enabled to give him birth by the overshadowing power of God the Holy Spirit; by the working of God Most High.

However, at this point in Matthew’s telling, it’s apparent that though God by the angel Gabriel had disclosed to Mary how she had become pregnant, he had not yet disclosed this to Joseph, to whom Mary was betrothed. By allowing Luke’s recounting inform Matthew’s, one commentator concludes that when the events recorded in Matthew are taking place, “Mary is about four months pregnant, having spent three months with Elizabeth, her ‘relative.’”[3] In other words, at four months pregnant, Mary likely was beginning to show a baby bump. When Joseph learned she was pregnant—knowing, of course, that he wasn’t the father—he made a noble decision. As stated in verse 19, “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Now Joseph being referred to as Mary’s “husband” is in keeping with Jewish practice at this time. As one scholar explains, “There were no sexual relations during a Jewish betrothal period, but it was a much more binding relationship than a modern engagement and could be broken only by divorce.”[4] Another adds, “betrothed partners were referred to as husband and wife”—as is also evident in the language used in verse 20[5]—“though they were not yet considered to be married, and having sexual relations during that period was considered immoral.”[6] Knowing the Jewish customs of the day, we can better appreciate how extraordinary—and extraordinarily loving—dear Joseph’s decision was for, having assumed that his beloved Mary had been unfaithful to him, he nonetheless made a decision not “to expose her to public disgrace” but instead chose “to divorce her quietly.” On the one hand, Joseph clearly felt that he couldn’t stay with a woman who had so betrayed him for he was a righteous man, a man who sought to be “faithful to the law;” on the other hand and at the same time, loving her, he didn’t want to subject her to the public reproach, disgrace, and penalty which, at this time, would have fallen upon her had he chosen to expose her. For, as stated by one commentator, “Sexual unfaithfulness during betrothal was considered adultery, and under the Mosaic law carried the death penalty by stoning.”[7] Because Joseph couldn’t bear the thought of this outcome, he chose to divorce Mary quietly rather than have her judged publicly and stoned to death as the law required.

But our gracious heavenly Father who loved and cared about both Mary and Joseph, the couple he had chosen to raise his eternal Son whom he had sent into the world by way of Mary’s womb, stepped in to make this painful, impossible, confusing situation right. As stated in verse 20, “But after [Joseph] had considered this,”—that is, after he had considered quietly divorcing Mary—“an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’” Ahhhhh. Now Joseph, too, knew that there was no betrayal or infidelity involved on Mary’s part. Therefore he needn’t divorce her or be afraid to take her home as his wife because, as the angel Gabriel had earlier disclosed to Mary, “an angel of the Lord” now disclosed to Joseph in a dream: that “what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

The angel went on state, verse 21, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Notice that neither Mary nor Joseph was given a choice concerning what to name this baby. As the angel Gabriel had told Mary that her son was to be named Jesus,[8] so now did the angel of the Lord tell Joseph.[9] This was important for in the name that the heavenly Father had chosen to give his Son is found the purpose for his Son’s being sent to earth. For “Jesus” is the Greek form of Joshua which means “the Lord saves.” And this saving purpose of Messiah Jesus’ coming to earth was revealed not only to Mary and Joseph but also:

to the “shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night”[10] who were told by an angel of the Lord, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.;”[11]

and to the Magi who upon seeing Jesus “with his mother Mary,” knowing that he was God “bowed down and worshiped him” and “opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”[12]

And to Simeon, “who was righteous and devout”[13] and to whom “It had been revealed…by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.”[14] When Simeon held baby Jesus in his arms, he “praised God, saying: ‘29 Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.;’”[15]

And to the prophet Anna who, upon coming up to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”[16] Anna, too, recognized that this child Jesus had been sent by God to redeem his people, to save his people, from their sins.

In all of this we see how Mary’s miraculous conception had a definitive purpose: to bring the Savior, God’s Messiah, the Christ, into the world, again, to “save his people from their sins.” For since before the foundation of the world God has known those who are his.[17] And with the birth of Jesus, those who are “his people” were provided a Savior, God’s eternal Son, the only way for them to know their heavenly Father;[18] in Jesus Christ, and him alone,[19] God’s people were provided a way to be saved “from their sins”—and from Satan and all evil—and from death itself.

Now the sending of Messiah, the Christ, wasn’t a new plan but a fulfillment of an old one. As Matthew states in verses 22–23, “22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).” The verse quoted here, Isaiah 7:14, has a double-fulfillment. In the context of Isaiah’s prophecy, the promise of the son called Immanuel by a virgin[20] came in response to King Ahaz, ruler over Judah, fearing an attack from “King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel.”[21] Within this context, God was providing assurance by stating clearly to King Ahaz concerning the dreaded attack, “It will not take place, it will not happen.”[22] It would not happen because God would provide a ruler for them. Therefore, in terms of this double-fulfillment, one commentator suggests, “Perhaps the prophecy has a partial fulfillment in the birth of Isaiah’s son Maher-shalal-hash-bas…, while the definitive fulfillment waits for the birth of Jesus Christ, who secures God’s throne forever.”[23] If this interpretation is correct, then this initial partial fulfillment occurred when Isaiah had intimate relations with his wife, who was a virgin when they married, and later bore him Maher-shalal-hash-bas.

But the definitive fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy during the time of Matthew’s writing would be found not in an earthly ruler, but a heavenly one; not in a temporary savior, but a permanent one; not in a fleeting leader but in an everlasting one. For as One who is fully human and fully God, Christ Jesus is ruler not only over earth but heaven as well. He is Immanuel, God who is ever with us; God who is ever for us. As Jesus himself declared to his disciples after defeating death by rising from death and prior to ascending to heaven, “…surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”[24] Indeed, the way that Jesus, Immanuel, is with us to the very end of the age is by his Holy Spirit whom he sends[25] to seal and indwell any and all who believe in him.[26]

Returning to righteous and kind Joseph, he accepted what the angel of the Lord disclosed to him in a dream concerning Mary’s pregnancy being the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God with us’).” Joseph received this revelation as the truth from God that it was. For, as stated in verse 24, “When [he] woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” Again, although Mary and Joseph had not yet consummated their betrothal, by the customs of their day they were nonetheless considered to be husband and wife. And because from his compassionate love, God intervened in Joseph’s life by one of his angels, we see that despite Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph didn’t break off their betrothal. He didn’t divorce her quietly as he had intended to do. No, he believed what God had disclosed to him. And, as verse 25 goes on to state, “But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son.” Therefore we see that in this definitive fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in the birth of Jesus, Matthew makes absolutely clear that Mary not only was a virgin at the time of her conception but she remained a virgin until she gave birth to God’s promised Messiah, Jesus the Christ. It wasn’t until after “she gave birth to a son” that Joseph consummated their marriage—the Gospels[27] and other portions of the New Testament[28] make mention of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. And, as stated at the end of verse 25, once he was born, Joseph gave this baby “the name Jesus.” Again, this is the name God had disclosed to both Mary and Joseph that they should give their son and which clearly indicates who he is and why he came: to “save his people from their sins” (verse 21).

Well, returning to Mary, can you imagine being in her position? Can you imagine being told by God’s servant, his angel, that without having had any sexual relations with any man, you would nonetheless become pregnant and give birth to God’s Messiah, the Christ, Jesus who is God, the LORD who saves? That you would become pregnant and give birth to God’s eternal Son, Immanuel, God with us?

Some of the songs recently sung by the Voice Ensemble try to capture this mystery. One of my favorites is found in the song we sang just before the message from Sing We the Song of Emmanuel: “Maker of Mary, now Mary’s son.”[29] Christ Jesus who made Mary, the world, and everything in it would humble himself and be born by the very Mary he had made. Being the eternal Son of his heavenly Father, he would now become the earthly son of his mother Mary.

Another favorite is the line from Mary, Did You Know? that we sang last week: Mary, “Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new? This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you? Mary, did you know?”[30] Indeed, Mary delivered her son having carried him in her womb for nine months. But this same Son would deliver her—and all who believe in and receive him—from their sin for all eternity.

Dear brothers and sisters, although Mary was literally pregnant with Immanuel, with God who is with us, as we ponder the mystery of the virgin birth of Jesus, our Savior and LORD, there’s a sense in which we, too, can be pregnant with the mystery of Immanuel. Therefore, the questions that can be posed to Mary can also be posed to us. So let me ask:

Do you know that Jesus is the LORD who saves us?

Do you know that Jesus is Immanuel, God who is ever with us; God who is ever for us?

Do you know that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the “Anointed One” whom God has chosen and promised to send?

Do you know that the earthly one born of Mary is the holy, eternal Son of God?

Do you know that God sent his eternal Son into the world to become the son of Mary and Joseph, no longer only fully divine but now also fully human, in order to save us from our sins—and the death that results—and from Satan and all evil that seeks to damage and destroy us?

This is the meaning of Advent. This is the meaning of God in Christ, Jesus Messiah, coming to earth. He came to deliver us from Satan, sin, and eternal death in order that we might know our gracious Father in heaven, holiness, and eternal life. He came into this world of darkness in order that we might know his light. He came to those who are blind due of the effects of the Fall in order that we might behold the sight of God. This is the Good News he came to proclaim—let us go and do likewise!

Let us pray.

Benediction: Romans 15:13: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

[1] Luke 1:34.

[2] Luke 1:35.

[3] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Matthew 1:18. The note cross-references Luke 1:36, 56: 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month…. 56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.

[4] Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Matthew 1:18. It goes on to note that “a betrothed woman is called a ‘wife,’: in Deuteronomy 22:24, “though the preceding verse speaks of her as being ‘pledged to be married.’” Deuteronomy 22:23–24: 23 If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, 24 you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you.

[5] Matthew 1:20: But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

[6] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Matthew 1:19. See Leviticus 20:10–12: 10 If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.

11 If a man has sexual relations with his father’s wife, he has dishonored his father. Both the man and the woman are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. 12 If a man has sexual relations with his daughter-in-law, both of them are to be put to death. What they have done is a perversion; their blood will be on their own heads.; Deuteronomy 22:22–24: 22 If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel. 23 If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, 24 you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you.

[7] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Matthew 1:19.

[8] Luke 1:31: You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.

[9] Mary and Joseph obeyed. As stated in Luke 2:21: On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.

[10] Luke 2:8.

[11] Luke 2:11. Emphasis added.

[12] Matthew 2:11. Emphasis added.

[13] Luke 2:22.

[14] Luke 2:26.

[15] Luke 2:28–32. Emphasis added.

[16] Luke 2:38. Emphasis added.

[17] See Ephesians 1:4–5: For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—

[18] John 14:6: Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

[19] As stated in Acts 4:8, 12:8 Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit” declared, “12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

[20] This can also be translated as a maiden, i.e., a young woman who wasn’t married at this point.

[21] Isaiah 7:1.

[22] Isaiah 7:7: Yet this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “It will not take place, it will not happen….”

[23] Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Isaiah 7:14. Isaiah 8:1–3 records the birth of Isaiah’s child: 1 The Lord said to me, “Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.” So I called in Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah as reliable witnesses for me. Then I made love to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.

[24] Matthew 28:20.

[25] Galatians 4:6: Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”

[26] Ephesians 1:13–14: 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.; 2 Timothy 1:14: Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

[27] Mark 6:3: Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.; Matthew 13:55–56: 55 “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? 56 Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?”;  John 7:3: Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do.

[28] Acts 1:14: They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.; 1 Corinthians 9:5: Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?

[29] Taken from the second verse, the entirety of which states, “Come we to welcome Emmanuel, King who came with no crown or throne. Helpless, He lay, the Invincible. Maker of Mary, now Mary’s son. O, what wisdom to save us all. Shepherds, sages before Him fall. Grace and majesty, what humility. Come on bended knee, adore Him.” Words & Music by Matt Boswell, Matt Papa, Stuart Townend, and Keith Getty

[30] Mary Did You Know? By Mark Lowry and Buddy Green. Arranged by Fred Bock.