God’s Plan. Joseph’s plans are interrupted in vv.20–23 by the appearance of a messenger from God in a dream — a device familiar from the Old Testament account of the birth of Samson (Judges 13). The first words uttered are “do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” The angel gives an explanation for Mary’s pregnancy, announcing the divine plan is already in motion. The angel also informs Joseph of his part in the divine plan: “you are to name him Jesus.” As explained above, this simple directive makes clear to Joseph that he is to claim Jesus as his own. As the legal son of Joseph, Jesus will be a “Son of David” (v. 20).
In first-century Judaism the Hebrew name Joshua (Greek Iesous) meaning “Yahweh helps” was interpreted as “Yahweh saves.” The language reminds us of similar revelations in the Old Testament (Gen. 16:11; 17:19; etc.), as well as of Isaiah 7:14, soon to be quoted. Names, especially divinely revealed names, are full of meaning, and this is often revealed by a word-play which need not always correspond to the actual etymology of the name. In the case of Jesus (the Greek form of Joshua or Jeshua, a common name) both the sound (cf. Heb. yôšî’a, ‘he will save’) and the probable etymology contribute to the explanation for he will save his people from their sins (v.20).
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”
Matthew also sees the virgin birth and naming as a fulfillment of scripture (this is the first of 10 such “fulfillment” passages in Matthew). Here Isaiah 7:14 is the fulfillment text. As noted in the “Context” section, the Isaian passage had a its primary fulfillment in Isaiah’s own time and was not primarily a prediction of an event centuries later. But Matthew sees Jesus as a fulfillment of the whole of Scripture.
Eugene Boring (Matthew, 135) observes Matthew’s use of this text has four characteristics that made it appropriate:
“(1) the original oracle was addressed to the “House of David” (Isa 7:2, 13). (2) Matthew’s faith affirms that Jesus is the one in who the promised deliverance is realized, in and through whom “God is with us.” (3) Since the LXX had translated almah with parthenos…which means primarily “virgin” but can also mean “young woman,” this provided another point of contact with Jesus. It is clear that Matthew already knew the story of Jesus’ virginal conception, which he now understands in the light of Scripture as it fulfillment. (4) The LXX had employed the future tense (the tense of the Hebrew is ambiguous and can mean that the young woman is already pregnant or will become pregnant. The LXX translators may have had the virgin Israel specifically in mind (cf. Amos 5:2), Who by God’s help would bring forth the Messiah. Matthew changes the LXX’s second person singular, “you shall call,” to third person plural…Since third person plural is one of the Jewish circumlocutions to avoid pronouncing the sacred name of God, and since naming in a Jewish context has to do with essential being and not merely labeling, Matthew’s meaning is probably “God will constitute him the one represents the continuing divine presence among the people of God.”
Perhaps as a prelude to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Joseph is facing is “you-have-heard-it-said-but-I-say-to-you” tension. The tension between what Joseph understands the Law to demand and the new thing that Joseph is doing in Jesus. By Joseph’s decision to obey the startling and unexpected command of God, he is already living the heart of the law and not its letter, already living out the new and higher righteousness of the kingdom. Joseph acts in accordance with the divine communication and takes Mary to be his wife (v. 24).
The whole of Matt 1:1–25 serves both to situate Jesus firmly within God’s people and to call attention to his extraordinary status. On the one hand, he is the descendant of Abraham and David and the fulfillment of the promises and hopes attached to those great Old Testament figures. On the other hand, the mode of his birth is highly unusual, and the names given to him — Jesus and Emmanuel — suggest that he far surpasses any of his ancestors.
Some Reflections. The virginal conception of Jesus can not stand as a proof of the Christian claim that Jesus is the “Son of God.” It is not a matter of “proof” but trust. Nor does Matthew seem to intend it as such. Matthew bases no theological claims upon the virgin birth and the birth is never again a reference in his gospel. Yet the claim of supernatural conception is not incidental. It is one of the ways Matthew has of confessing that Jesus is the Son of God. Matthew has others, e.g. the Apostle Peter confesses the fundamental Christian faith that Jesus is “the Christ, the son of the living God” (16:16) because it was revealed to him by God in heaven. In the whole of Scripture, for Matthew, the story of Jesus is speaking about God – that God is with us.
Matthew begins and ends his narrative with the fragile human life of Jesus surrounded by God in both the birth story and the Passion account – each of which points to God as the hidden actor of the deeper story. While the Passion narrative is essential, the birth story as a miracle is not. As provocative as that sounds, the virginal conception is not the proof or even the meaning of the Christian claim that Jesus is the “Son of God.”
Matthew 1:21 Jesus: the Hebrew name Joshua (Greek Iesous) meaning “Yahweh helps” was interpreted as “Yahweh saves.” In addition, some scholars have pointed out that in being named “Joshua” there is another important theme being developed in Matthew’s story. Joshua inherited and fulfilled Moses’ role. The Matthean typology of Jesus as the “new Moses” is developed throughout the remainder of this gospel.
Matthew 1:23 God is with us: God’s promise of deliverance to Judah in Isaiah’s time is seen by Matthew as fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, in whom God is with his people. The name Emmanuel is alluded to at the end of the gospel where the risen Jesus assures his disciples of his continued presence,”. . . I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Matthew 1:24 he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded. Joseph is a model of quiet obedience to three angelic revelations in Matt 1–2 (cf. 2:13–15, 19–21). He got up and did exactly as he was told without hesitation or question. This parallels Mary’s humble obedience in Luke 1:38.
Matthew 1:25 until she bore a son: the evangelist is concerned to emphasize that Joseph was not responsible for the conception of Jesus. In English is something is negated up to a point in time, occurrence after that time is normally assumed. However, the expression (heōs hou) and its Semitic counterpart have no such assumption. The immediate context favors a lack of future implication given Matthew’s stress on Mary’s virginity so that the Isaian prophecy is fulfilled.
- Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) pp. 266-68
- Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1999 updated edition) pp. 123-64
- Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000) p. 249
- John J. Collins, “Isaiah” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) pp. 421-23
- R.T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) pp. 81-85
- Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 154-62
- Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) pp. 864-65
- Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at www.crossmarks.com