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The Virgin Birth

Matthew 1:18-25 


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. [19] And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly.

We don't know much about Joseph, Mary's husband. We know he was a carpenter. We know he was alive at Jesus' 12th birthday and suspect that he preceded Jesus in death. We know that he lived in Nazareth, his hometown was Bethlehem, and he was a direct descendant of King David. We know that he was a righteous man, because verse 19 says he was. But we don't know much more about him.

How did he and Mary meet? Was their marriage based upon their love and respect for one another, or was it an arranged marriage? In the ancient near east, marriages were often arranged by a person's parents or by a marriage broker. Engagements were often arranged for a couple while they were still children without them ever meeting one another. Sounds like a strange custom to us, but when you consider how young they were when they married, it makes a little more sense. Rabbis fixed the minimum age for marriage to be 12 for girls and 13 for boys. Commenting on the practice, Barclay wrote, "Marriage was held to be far too serious a step to be left to the dictates of human passion and the human heart."

Later, the couple would ratify their engagement with a year-long betrothal. If the girl was unwilling to marry the boy, she could break off the engagement prior to entering into the betrothal period, but once the betrothal began, the relationship was binding and could only be severed by divorce.

This was Joseph and Mary's status when she became pregnant. They were betrothed. The NIV uses the word "pledged" to describe their arrangement, the KJV uses the word "espoused." During this one year betrothal, they had the legal status of husband and wife, even though they were not sexually active.

Quite a different standard than today's sexual ethic. Mary and Joseph had a legal, civic covenant with one another, that could not be broken without divorce, but abstained from sexual contact. Today, it isn't unusual for a couple to be sexually active without any type of commitment to one another-a recipe for disaster. 

Virginity was important to Joseph. And rightly so. The law was clear about this matter. 

Look at Deut. 22:13-21. "If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then turns against her, [14] and charges her with shameful deeds and publicly defames her, and says, 'I took this woman, but when I came near her, I did not find her a virgin,' [15] then the girl's father and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of the girl's virginity to the elders of the city at the gate. [16] And the girl's father shall say to the elders, 'I gave my daughter to this man for a wife, but he turned against her; [17] and behold, he has charged her with shameful deeds, saying, 'I did not find your daughter a virgin.' But this is the evidence of my daughter's virginity.' And they shall spread the garment before the elders of the city. [18] So the elders of that city shall take the man and chastise him, [19] and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give it to the girl's father, because he publicly defamed a virgin of Israel. And she shall remain his wife; he cannot divorce her all his days. [20] But if this charge is true, that the girl was not found a virgin, [21] then they shall bring out the girl to the doorway of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death because she has committed an act of folly in Israel, by playing the harlot in her father's house; thus you shall purge the evil from among you."

If a man claimed his bride wasn't a virgin, but she was, he was fined a sum that was twice the typical dowry and lost the right to ever divorce her. But if he claims his bride wasn't a virgin and it turns out that he is right, the men of Israel would take her to her father's house and stone her to death in his doorway.

Barbaric? Yes, it was. I certainly wouldn't advise we take up this practice in our age, but I'd also point out to you that modern practice is pretty barbaric too. At least in the ancient near east, the fathers took responsibility for their children's chastity. How civilized is it for a father to turn his daughter over to any young man who can afford to buy her dinner and then let her stay out all hours of the night and then just sit back and hope that she makes the "right decision?" The sad truth is in many families, Dad is completely silent on this issue. If anyone speaks about it with the children it is Mom. I don't see anything wrong with Mom talking about it, but I do see something wrong with Dad being quiet.

In many homes, the message is communicated, that sex is OK if you love the person or if you use "protection"-whatever that means. Though I don't want to see anybody's daughter stoned to death for making a mistake, neither do I want to see parents abdicating their responsibilities. 

Joseph had three choices. He could forget about his rights and go through with the marriage and face society's shame and ridicule, he could call the men of the city together and have them take Mary to her father's house and stone her, or he could divorce her. He wasn't willing to look the other way and continue with the marriage, but neither did he want to kill her. The wound was deep, but he was a gracious man. His plan was to divorce her.

But then everything changed. Let's continue reading our text: "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 that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. [21] And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.' [22] Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, [23] '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.' [24] And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife, [25] and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus."

Joseph had made up his mind when he dozed off to sleep. But in his sleep, an angel appeared to him and explained everything. Mary hadn't been unfaithful to him, she was the chosen one-the one who would give birth to Immanuel- "God with us." 

Mary was the one Isaiah prophesied about when he wrote: "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel." (Isaiah 7:14 NASB)

Joseph didn't divorce her, and he didn't have her stoned. Instead, He followed the angel's instructions and married her, but he didn't exercise his marital rights with her until after she gave birth to a son that wasn't his-a son that was conceived by the Holy Spirit of God. A son that he named Jesus-a Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua which means, Jehovah is salvation.

It was important to Joseph that Mary was a virgin when they married. But if that is all we get out of this text, we've missed the point. It wasn't just that Mary was a virgin, it was that no man was the father. Not Joseph, and not anyone else. The Holy Spirit conceived the child. What was inside her was Divine. That is the glory of Christmas. God became man.

John put it this way. "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14 NASB)

The point of the virgin birth isn't the righteousness of Mary, though I don't diminish the importance of that fact from Joseph's perspective. The point of the virgin birth is the graciousness of God. That God would become flesh. That God would dwell among us. That God would come in all of His glory and show us grace and truth.

That Jesus-Jehovah is salvation-would be born. And that I can be saved, because of Him. That's the point of the virgin birth-that's the point of Christmas.

(Broadman Commentary, vol. 8, p. 83-84; Barclay, vol. 1, p. 8-14; ZPEB, vol 4, p. 92-97; Tyndale NT Commentary , vol 1, p. 34-35.) 

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