God’s Plan

This coming Sunday is the 4th Sunday of Advent and includes the traditional gospel passage from Matthew in which we encounter the “annunciation” of Jesus’ birth to Joseph. In yesterday’s post we considered Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14. Today we want to explore the relationship of Joseph and Jesus.

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 yesterday, 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 with an immediate fulfillment in the time of Isaiah and King Ahaz, but also a fulfillment across all time.

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 its 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.

Image credit: Dream of St Joseph, c. 1625–1630, by Gerard Seghers | Kunsthistorisches Museum | Public Domain 

2 thoughts on “God’s Plan

    • LXX – Septuagint translation of the Old Testament. Translated from Hebrew into Greek. General data: Alexandria circa. 200 years before Christ. Linguists estimate the ~85% of NT quotes of the Old Testament are taken from the LXX.

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