Matthew 1-2
The Birth of Jesus


Matthew has a story to tell. It is the story of Jesus, a story that does not begin "Once upon a time..." but "Now, at long last...."

This realization is the key to understanding the structure of Matthew's Gospel and the key to the significance of these first two chapters of his work. Matthew, once a despised tax collector but nevertheless a Jew, writes to show his own people that Jesus of Nazareth truly was the Messiah promised by the Old Testament seers. Matthew also writes to answer a question that must have burned in the heart of every first-century Jew. If Jesus was the Messiah, what happened to the glorious kingdom foretold in the Scriptures? The answer, like the evidence of Jesus' messiahship, will unfold gradually as Matthew tells his story. But from the very first Matthew understands what he must do to reach the Jewish community. So he looks back and, as he begins, roots his account in the glorious history of the ancient and beloved people of God.

Matthew begins with an answer to the first question any ordinary Jew, as well as a rabbi, would ask. What basis exists to support Jesus' claim of messiahship? The first evidence Matthew presents is Jesus' genealogy: Jesus is a descendant of Abraham and a descendant of David (1:1-17). Matthew then tells the story of Jesus' conception, weaving into it several additional lines of evidence (1:18-25): Christ's birth was miraculous, the fulfillment of a prophecy made 700 years earlier by Isaiah. And, His birth was announced by the Angel of the Lord, a divine manifestation of Yahweh's personal involvement in events that occurred only infrequently in Israel's history (cf. Gen. 16:7-14; 22:9-18; Ex. 3:1-4:17). The full weight of the past thus affirms Jesus' right to David's throne, and an aura of the supernatural shines around His birth. This is evidence indeed!

But there is more. Magi from the East saw and recognized a supernatural sign in the heavens and came seeking the "King of the Jews" (2:1-12). Here again mystical elements are woven into the story along with references to OT prophecy. Strikingly, the context of each prophecy referred to in this chapter emphasizes the royal mission and destiny of the Messiah (cf. 2:2 with Jer. 23:5; 2:6 with Micah 5:2; 2:23 with Hosea 11:1). Again a combination of prophecy and the uncanny creates an aura of the supernatural and supports Matthew's argument that from the very beginning Jesus was marked out as special, identified by God as the One chosen to be His Messiah.

As Matthew continues, he answers other questions sure to be raised by Jewish leaders. If Jesus was David's heir, born in Bethlehem, why did He not grow up there?

The answer is that the family fled into Egypt to escape the murderous jealousy of Herod (2:13-18)—and in so doing fulfilled God's Word, "Out of Egypt I called My Son" (2:15). And, when the family returned, God directed Joseph to settle in Nazareth (2:19-23)—and in so doing fulfilled another word of God, "He will be called a Nazarene" (2:23). Thus God set His own mark on these events, directing Jesus' family to acts which fulfilled predictions and whose significance was only revealed later on. Thus Matthew lays the foundation of his argument. The story he has to tell about Jesus is not the story of an ordinary man, or even of an exceptional Jewish rabbi. It is the story of Israel's Messiah, who is also God's Son, who has become the Savior of the world.

Word Studies

A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the Son of David, the son of Abraham (1:1). The Greek biblis geneseos means a "record of the origins." This Greek phrase is used in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the OT, in Gen. 6:9, 10:1, 11:10, and 11:27. (The NIV reads, "This is the record.") In the OT the phrase often indicates a new turn in God's plan, a new beginning. Thus Matthew alerts us: The birth of Jesus marks a new beginning, not just for Israel, but for the human race!

Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus (1:16). Matthew purposely fails to define the relationship between Joseph and Jesus. Legally, Jesus was the son of Joseph, and thus His claim to David's throne is firmly established. Biologically, Jesus was born of Mary. Joseph, as Matthew goes on to explain, did not father this One who was to be the Messiah. Jesus is not only God the Son, but also the Son of God.

Was the father of (1:2, etc.). The Greek word egennesen, translated "begat" in older versions and "was the father of in the NIV, does not indicate immediate parentage, but does claim direct descent. Jesus is firmly placed in the line of the great men of sacred history. This is an important reminder for us. We cannot sever the NT from the OT, the fulfillment from the promise, the age of the New Covenant from the age of the Old Covenant. The Jesus we worship is that descendant of David who came as Israel's Messiah. In Jesus, Old and New, Jew and Christian, are inseparably linked. [See box, page 13.]

Fourteen generations... (1:17). It is well known that Hebrew genealogies do not include all ancestors, but are highly selective in nature. Why then does Matthew select and organize his genealogy into three groups of fourteen? The best answer is that he uses a familiar rabbinic device called gematria, which builds an argument on the numerical value of the Hebrew letters that make up a word. The letters in David's name add up to 14 (D = 4, W = 6, D = 4). Thus Matthew's organization may well reflect a then familiar way of subtly emphasizing Jesus' descent from David.

Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace (1:19). This text gives us wonderful insight into what it means to be "righteous" [dikaios]. Under Jewish custom Mary was bound to Joseph as a wife, even though they had not had intercourse. The betrothal was legally binding. Discovery that Mary was pregnant—gave Joseph a basis for breaking the contract and recovering the bride-price he had already paid. Many a man, finding his betrothed pregnant, would have demanded public exposure, not only to silence any gossip about him but also to recover his money. And in so doing would have considered himself fully justified (and thus righteous)! Joseph, although he must have felt betrayed, considered Mary and made a very different choice. Under the law he could give Mary a bill of divorce, without public trial, but would also have to return any dowry he had received, as a fine. Joseph chose this option, despite the financial as well as emotional cost. Let's never mistake "making the other person pay" for righteousness. In doing what is right we are to show compassion, even to those who wrong us.

You are to give Him the name Jesus (1:21). It is significant that the angel addressed this to Joseph. It was the father's privilege to name an infant, and by naming a baby the father formally acknowledged the child as his own. Thus the Angel of the Lord was instructing Joseph not only to fulfill the marriage contract with Mary, but also to bring Jesus up as his own child. Undoubtedly, the neighbors in Nazareth never suspected the truth of Jesus' birth.

They will call Him Immanuel (1:23).

Jesus' name, as the text says, means "God [is] with us." Here, "they will call" does not so much mean "name" as "acknowledge." Jesus claimed that the one seeing Him had seen the Father (John 14:9). Only those who acknowledge Jesus as God, born to take a stand with and for us, have grasped the truth Matthew is so intent on sharing.

Bethlehem (2:6). The name means "house of bread." In biblical times "bread" stood for "food," essential to sustain biological life. As the "Bread of heaven," born in this "house of bread," Jesus sustains eternal, spiritual life.

We saw His star in the east (2:2). The star was not in the east. It was the Magi who were in the east when they saw the star, and they traveled west following it.

He asked them where the Christ was to be born (2:4). The imperfect tense (epunthaneto) suggests repeated inquiries. Herod was frantic to know where this One he saw as a rival would be born and grilled everyone who might know.

He will be called a Nazarene (2:23). The verse is puzzling, for no verse predicts the Messiah would grow up in Nazareth. The reference may be intended to link the fact that Nazareth was looked upon with contempt in the first century as a backwater (John 7:42, 52)

Jews On Jesus

It is popular these days for Jewish scholars to argue that Jesus stands squarely in the tradition of first-century rabbis and sages. They suggest that Christians are mistaken about supposed differences in His teachings from the teachings of His contemporaries. In a letter to the Bible Review (June 1991, p. 9), an outstanding Jewish scholar, Jacob Neusner, who is Graduate Research Professor of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida, writes:

What makes a Christian is that he or she believes Jesus is Christ, unique, God, Son of God, risen from the dead. To these profound, Christian beliefs the issue of whether or not Jesus taught this or that which Judaism also taught is simply, monumentally irrelevant.... This does not mean that we cannot be friends, work together, respect, and admire and even love one another. It does mean that we have a major theological problem to address, since both of us—Judaism, Christianity—cannot be right, and if (as I believe) we are right, then Christians are wrong, and if (as most Christians believe) Christianity is right about Jesus Christ, then we Jews are wrong. Characterizing Jesus as a Galilean charismatic is not merely childish and trivial, it is irrelevant to the life of the lived faiths, Christianity and Judaism; and characterizing Jesus as some sort of rabbi, or as a Jew among Jews (as though nothing happened on or after first Easter) is simply an evasion and an irrelevance.

Matthew, who so clearly grasped this issue, makes it clear from the beginning of his Gospel that this is the issue his own people must confront. Who is Jesus? Is He Christ, unique, Son of God, risen from the dead? Matthew's answer is an unequivocable, unmistakable "Yes!" with the many OT prophecies that the Messiah would be despised (Ps. 22:6-8; Isa. 49:7; 53:2-3). If so, we are surely reminded that Jesus totally changes man's point of view. Nazareth, once despised, is honored today as the childhood home of the Savior.

They opened their treasures (2:11). The Greek phrase is thesaurous auton and refers to the containers in which valuables were kept. The fact that three valuables are mentioned has led to the unjustified assumption that there were "three kings" in the party that found Jesus.

Slew all the male children that were in Bethlehem (2:16). Archaeological surveys of remains dating from the first century suggest, on the basis of the population of the area, that probably some 15-18 children were killed by Herod's soldiers.

The Passage In Depth

The Genealogy (1:1-17). See the parallel passage in Luke 3:23-38 for a discussion of the differences between the two genealogical records.

The Genealogy's Four Women (1:3, 5-6). One of the distinctive features of Matthew's genealogy is his specific inclusion of four women. The critical question here is: Why?

Background. Hebrew culture was patriarchal, and genealogies usually listed only men. There were, however, two typical reasons in the east to include a woman or two. (1) The woman was greatly admired, and her inclusion enhanced the reputation of the family. (2) The husband had more than one wife, in which case the name of the wife is typically given with the name of her son. This practice is often followed in the OT when naming the kings of Israel and Judah.

However, we can appeal to neither of these practices to explain why Matthew included the four women he chose to name. They were hardly admired. Nor is there any confusion in the OT concerning whose children their sons were. So we are led to seek another reason for Matthew's decision to name these particular four.

Interpretation. The explanation must hinge on what we know of the four. Tamar, a Canaanite woman, seduced the father-in-law who had wronged her, and bore him two sons (Gen. 38). Rahab, also a Canaanite, made her living as a prostitute before giving her allegiance to the Lord and helping Israelite spies escape Jericho (Josh. 2, 6). Ruth, though morally pure, was a Moabitess, a race whose origins were in incest (Gen. 19:30-37) and which, according to Deut. 23:3, was banned from the Lord's assembly. Bathsheba is best known for her (forced?) adultery with David. Although born into a Jewish family (1 Chron. 3:5), she may have been classified as a Hittite because of her marriage to Uriah (2 Sam. 11:3; 23:39).

The four women seem to have two things in common. They were flawed morally. And they were outside the OT Covenant community, with no native right to claim God or to expect Him to deal with them in grace. What then moved Matthew to include these four women in the line of Jesus the Messiah?

One possibility is that, as a tax collector, looked on with contempt by his neighbors, Matthew knew what it meant to be a sinner and then redeemed. Matthew identifies with these four women and includes them as illustrations of the transforming power of God who has now sent the Messiah to "save His people from their sins" (1:21).

Another possibility, Matthew may be thinking of the universality of the mission of Jesus. God's covenant with Abraham included the promise, "all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Gen. 12:3). The four women demonstrate God's commitment to keep that promise, which receives its ultimate fulfillment in the Christian Gospel's invitation to all to believe in Jesus and be saved.

A third possibility is that Matthew is subtly reminding his readers, who looked for a Messiah who would appear in glory and power, that history shows God working in strange and mysterious ways. We cannot say how God will or must act. All we can do is recognize His handiwork and worship Him.

Application. There is no reason to rule out any of the three interpretations above. In fact, they blend together in a wonderful way. Our God is the God of the unexpected. He remains concerned for those "outside," as well as for you and me. As each of the four women illustrates, God reaches out in grace for the sinner and by His transforming power God cleanses sinners and makes them vital, contributing members of the community of faith.

The Birth of Jesus Christ (1:18-25).

Background. Perhaps the first things a person should note in this passage are the miraculous elements. The fathering of the child by the Holy Spirit. An angelic visitation to announce the birth to Joseph. The promise of ancient prophecies about to be fulfilled. These all support Matthew's thesis that Jesus truly is Israel's Messiah and the Son of the Living God.

Yet we need to note something else. God carefully, graciously, guarded Joseph's love for Mary and prepared him to love her child.

Marriage customs in Jewish culture were very unlike those in our day. The marriage was negotiated by a girl's parents and involved the payment of a bride-price by the husband when an agreement was reached. At this point the girl was "pledged" (1:18), betrothed, and was considered the wife of her husband-to-be, even though she still lived in her parents' home and had no marital relations with him.

It was not unusual for older men to arrange to marry girls of nine or ten, often in order to protect property rights when a father died, or because orphan girls in the ancient Middle East had no means of support. In such cases a child bride would live in the home of her husband, but remain a virgin till she reached marriageable age. Of course, if she were found not to be a virgin when the marriage was consummated, the husband could obtain an annulment and the bride-price would be returned.

Interpretation. It is perhaps significant that an ancient tradition suggests Joseph was an older man and Mary a very young girl. If this is the case it is possible that, as a child bride, Mary had lived in Joseph's home, and that he had developed a deep affection for her. We can imagine his dismay when Joseph discovered Mary was pregnant—a discovery he could hardly have made if Mary still lived in her parents' home. That affection, and his own righteous character, led Joseph to contemplate a self-sacrificial step. He would not "expose her to public disgrace." Instead he would divorce her quietly and suffer the loss of the bride-price he had paid. We can only imagine the anger and hurt Joseph must have felt. But we can surely admire this man of character and compassion, who although seemingly betrayed, still put Mary's needs and reputation before his own.

It was only then, the decision made, that God intervened. Only then did God reveal the miracle of Mary's pregnancy and what that miracle would mean. The child had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. He would be "God with us." And He was the One God intended to use to "save His people from their sins." Joseph is not to hesitate consummating the relationship when the child has been born.

Note: The NIV translation seems to rule out examining this possibility by translating paralabe in v. 20 as "take Mary home." But the word means simply to "take to oneself and need not imply that Mary was not already living with Joseph as a virgin child bride.

Application. How fascinating that God�