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Birth of Christ

Matthew 1:18-25

Lesson audio

I know of no subject which divides all of Christianity (including Catholic and Orthodox) more than the view of the virgin Mary. It is one of the division points between Roman and Greek churches; it is a major point of division between Catholic and Protestant as well. It would be a major division point between Protestant and Orthodox too, if we ever got to know each other. But in what follows, we will stick with Matthew’s wording and see what can be learned – and what can be left.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. "She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins." Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL," which translated means, "GOD WITH US." And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.

(Mat 1:18-25 NASB)


We may begin with the seldom studied character of Joseph. He’s a man with a problem. Mary, being betrothed to him, is actually living in the house of Joseph’s parents, if the custom of the time holds true. As a practical matter of fact, it would have been almost impossible for Joseph to have had sex with Mary; he certainly reacted as if he was not the father. But in his reaction we can see the character of this righteous man:

  • First, it is clear that he is a follower of the Jewish Law. There is no sex outside marriage. That’s what he follows; that’s what he expected Mary to follow.
  • We know also that he is not a vengeful man, given to anger – for he stopped to think about this development.
  • He is instead a patient man, for he takes time to think through the situation.

From his point of view, he had three options:

  • He could make a proclamation concerning Mary, accusing her of adultery (which would be the case under the Law.) At the least Mary would be ostracized for life; it is quite likely that the village would have stoned her to death.
  • He could, on the other hand, simply pass over the incident and marry her anyway. It would ruin his reputation, however, for he would then be an accomplice to adultery.
  • He could do as many other families have done – you send her away to some relatives who aren’t local, let her have the baby and (perhaps) give the child to someone.

In his wisdom, Joseph chose the third option. To select the first would have been vengeful. To select the second would make him a sinner also. So, the quiet, peaceful route was chosen. In this there is wisdom; but God had other plans.

A man of obedience

The method by which Joseph gets his explanation – and his marching orders – is a very personal, intimate one.

  • The angel appears to him in a dream. The shepherds needed the full angel chorus; Zacharias needed the angel in person; Joseph is sufficiently trusting of God that a dream suffices.
  • The angel reminds him of his ancestry: he is a descendant of David, the king of Israel. The matter is one of family, then.
  • The dream arrives as Joseph is pondering what to do.

Joseph is given two explicit instructions. One concerns the child’s name. It is not apparent in the English, but the original carries with it the implication that the child’s name is already selected; Joseph is merely being informed as to what it already is. The angel also gives him a command of courage: “Do not fear…” Undoubtedly tongues will wag; times will be tough. But do not fear.


We shall skip the usual compendium of arguments about Mary, confining ourselves to listing the prominent views. But before that, we have an interesting question:

Why a virgin who was betrothed?

Joseph’s male organs are not involved in this; why did God select a young woman who was already engaged?

  • First, this gave her son a genealogy. Descent was always taken from the male side of the house; by this logic, Christ’s right to the throne of David comes through Joseph.
  • Second, there is the practical fact that after the fuss dies down, Mary has to live in the community. A single mom with a child out of wedlock would be ostracized at the least (remember the woman at the well?)
  • Also, there is the little matter, seldom mentioned these days, of their flight to Egypt. Such a journey in those days was perilous indeed with a man; without such she is in real danger of rape.
Views of Mary

As promised, a slightly biased review of the views of Mary:

  • Theotokos. In the Eastern Orthodox view (and many others) Mary is viewed as the “God Bearer.” This view gives Mary a place above other women, for her child was greater than all other men. This view prevailed until Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. It then became convenient for the new religion to have a Goddess, like the other religions. (There are some striking parallels between Mary and, for example, Isis.)
  • Mother of God. This is the Roman Catholic view. In this view, Mary is not only higher, but she also (in some way) is to be considered part of the Godhead. She therefore takes a prominent place in worship. Out of this view have come doctrines which “must be true” if Mary is indeed a participant in the Godhead. For example, the Immaculate Conception (meaning that Mary was born without original sin) and the perpetual virginity of Mary. The clear implication is that without Mary, in particular, Christ could not have come. This has been raised to the point where the late pope, John Paul II, seriously gave consideration to announcing ex cathedra that Mary is co-redemptrix with Christ.
  • Model woman. In the Protestant view Mary is seen as a model of what women should be. This has produced its distortions as well, but we may bring out some points regarding her character.
    • Obedience. Like Joseph, this young girl takes on a challenge for which she could not have prepared. Only the habit of obedience would produce such a meek reply. (Remember, Moses objected to being given his job).
    • Purity. Could God select someone without a pure heart?
    • Devotion. In her reply (in Luke) we see one who is so devoted to her God that she calls herself the “handmaid” of God. Not puffing herself up or proclaiming her divinity, she is happy to be a servant.

Henry Halley, a Bible commentator from the 1920s who was a fire breathing opponent of the Catholic Church, condemned that church but separated Mary from her worshippers:

 “It arose on the ruins of the Roman Empire, in the name of Christ occupying the throne of the Caesars; a Revival of the Image of the Roman Empire inheriting the Spirit thereof; ‘the Ghost of the Roman Empire come to life in the garb of Christianity’ ... It brought itself to power through the prestige of Rome, and the Name of Christ, and by shrewd political alliances, and by deception, and by armed force;  and by Armed Force and Bloodshed has maintained itself in power“ (flaming capitals in the original) -- from which you can see how he felt about the Catholic church.  Yet see how he views Mary:

“Mary was a quiet, meditative, devoted, wise woman, most honored of women, queen of mothers, sharing the cares common to motherhood.  We admire her, we honor her, and we love her because she was the mother of our Savior.”

Virgin Birth

We shall speak somewhat more about the Incarnation in a later lesson, I hope, but the concept has given the church trouble (and heresy) from the very beginning. The question to be faced is this: How can God, the sovereign of the universe, be a little baby?

The Scripture gives us very little to go on. But we may see it in the titles He carried:

  • He called himself the Son of Man – meaning he was of human descent. He didn’t just crawl out of the spaceship.
  • He is also Son of God.

These two cannot be reconciled – outside the Virgin Birth.

Why is this necessary?

Why did God go to this trouble? Why not a flaming angel telling folks to write down his words?

  • First, there is a long history of prophecy – from the Garden of Eden onward – that proclaims the coming of the Messiah in just this way. We were warned.
  • Next, there is the Law of the Jews – which requires the perfect sacrifice. If his own people are to have any chance to accept him, this must be satisfied.
  • For those not under the law, they could still understand the concept of ransom – someone else paying for my release.
There is only one question

Who do you say that Jesus is?

  • I say that He is the one born of the virgin, Mary. So he is fully human as I am. He knows my weaknesses.
  • I say that He is the Christ, the Messiah, the long promised Holy One of Israel.
  • I say that He is the Son of God, bearing the same essence that unites Him with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

This I believe; on this I have staked not only my life, but my life eternal. God helping, I can do no other.

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