Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 1:18-25
Christmas is the story of God taking on human flesh—the mystery of the incarnation. But it is also a story of incredible human obedience and trust. Both aspects still have immense value for us today.
"She will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
The Context of Matthew
I gave you most of the context last week. The first three chapters are really all about establishing the qualifications of Jesus to be the Messiah. I would like to point out a couple of neat things about the genealogy that most people gloss over. (1) It’s arranged into 3 groups of 14 for symbolic purposes—that doesn’t mean that every generation was listed; there are many examples of such lists being “telescoped.” (2) There are 5 women listed in the genealogy, an unheard of practice. All of the women are listed for their unique role in salvation history, and all but Mary were Gentiles! Matthew clearly had some points to prove in his list. Look up their stories if you have time. (3) Also note that Joseph is never called Jesus’ father, but the husband of Mary. Matthew knows what he’s doing. This week and next we read the nativity stories. If you would, pay attention to the scenes, narrations, and actions of our Drive Through Nativity and see how we’re doing with it! Give us suggestions!
Getting Started: Things to Think About
If you’re a Dr. Who fan like my family is, “hybrid” is on your mind. A hybrid is something made from two unique species. In reality, we have today rare things like “ligers” (they’re real), and “zebroids,” and much more common things like Killer Bees. In mythology, we have great fantastic creatures like the minotaur, centaur, sphinx, satyr, harpy, gorgon, Pegasus, werewolf, and Davy Crockett (half man, half horse, half alligator). Even when I know the history of some such myths, I still don’t really understand where they came from! But they make for fun conversation, and this might appeal to some of your class members.
Anyway—here’s the point. People try to think of Jesus as some such hybrid (half man, half God), and that’s where theology breaks down completely. On the next page, I give you a synopsis of “incarnation” and why it matters. Here’s why you can’t think of Jesus as a hybrid. In the first batch, two unlike things (like lions and tigers or zebras and horses) are combined together to make something new. A zebroid is neither a zebra nor a horse. If Jesus were this kind of hybrid, He would be neither human nor God but something else. In the second mythological batch, we have two unlike things that are fashioned together. A minotaur is part man, part bull, joined somewhere between the two. If Jesus were a hybrid like this, He would be part human, part God.
None of that applies to Jesus. Jesus is fully human, fully God; completely human, completely God; unmistakably human, unmistakably God. He’s not a mixture, He’s not something new, He’s not schizophrenic. There’s simply no way we can understand what Jesus is based on any earthly analogue. On the next page, I try to explain how our desire to “explain” Jesus have gotten us into lots of trouble, and also make Christianity so hard to bring into the philosophical realm.
This Week's Big Idea: The “Hypostatic Union” of God and Man
My guess is you haven’t heard that term, and it’s probably pretty scary sounding, but it’s the term that the early church came up with to explain the most important and inexplicable truth of the New Testament: that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully human. If that truth is not completely true, then our salvation is completely called into question. Here is the best summary of the doctrine:
“In the incarnation of the Son of God, a human nature was inseparably united forever with the divine nature in the one person of Jesus Christ, yet with the two natures remaining distinct, whole, and unchanged, without mixture or confusion, so that the one person, Jesus Christ, is truly God and truly man.”
The early church set out this formula in the Council of Chalcedon in 451 in response to a number of major challenges to Christian theology. Each challenge came from a starting point of someone trying to explain philosophically how “deity” and “humanity” could co-mingle. According to human philosophy, they can’t. So men came up with these explanations of Christ’s incarnation.
Jesus was like a drop of humanity in a sea of divinity. He had two separate natures (a human nature and a divine nature), but the divine nature always overwhelmed the human one (Eutychus introduced a version of this).
The God Christ came and possessed the man Jesus at his baptism, and remained in him until the crucifixion. This protected the divine nature from being corrupted by the human nature, or worse, dying (Theodotus championed this).
The human nature and the divine nature mixed together into something new—a third thing that no one has ever been before (or since) (Apollinaris introduced this).
When Christ became man, he became something less than God. He ceased to be as divine as the Father (or in the explanation of Arius, God created Jesus to be something less) (Nestorius taught a version of this ).
Those ideas are heresy, and that’s why the early church came up with the formula they did. But now that it’s become commonplace again for people to question Jesus, let me give you the philosophical reasons why people believe those heresies. It comes down to this: god/divinity is perfect; man/humanity is corrupt; therefore, the two cannot be brought together. I understand that fear. On the one hand, in a religion like Mormonism or New Age versions of Christianity, the fact that Jesus was God and man has been used to teach that all men can become god. Yikes! Humans will never become gods! And on the other hand, we base our entire message on the truth that all humans have been utterly separated from God by our sin that we can’t do anything about on our own. So how can Jesus be truly human and not sin?
And I think that’s the whole point. Philosophically, metaphysically, the incarnation cannot be explained. If I could explain how Jesus was fully God and fully human, where would faith be? (By the way, you can research a doctrine called “perichoresis” if you want to see how people have tried to give a physical explanation to the incarnation.) But if I can simply explain that Jesus was fully God and fully human, then every question in the Bible about how God could bridge the gulf between us can be answered in a way that no philosophy ever could.
Consider the main passages on the incarnation: John 1:1-14, Rom 1:2-5, Rom 9:5, Phil 2:6-11, 1 Tim 3:16, Heb 2:14, 1 John 1:1-3. God became man and dwelt among us.
Part 1: Supernatural Conception (Matthew 1:18)
The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After His mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit.
I’m really not sure what I’ll be able to tell you that you haven’t already heard about these verses, but I’ll give it a try. First, I give you a sidebar later on why it matters that Jesus was conceived by a virgin (and why people argue about it). Second, I tell you everything we know about Joseph at the bottom. Tradition has it that Mary would have been in her early teens (which is very reasonable) and that Joseph was much older (which is completely unsubstantiated). We really don’t know how old Joseph was, only that we hear nothing about him later in the Gospels. That doesn’t have to mean he died of old age. Certainly he was a least a few years older than Mary. They were both poor (as a couple, they could only afford the lowliest sacrifice; Luke 2:22-24). And they were in a legally binding betrothal.
Your leader guide mentions how Mary’s conception was different than the tradition Greek man/god myth where a god has physical intercourse with a maiden to produce a demi-god (Hercules, Dionysius, Perseus, Gilgamesh, Helen of Troy, Remus and Romulus). That’s clearly NOT where Jesus came from! Jesus has been God for all eternity; Mary was the conduit through which He became fully human. On a side note, I brought up in my class that every old culture has multiple myths about gods and demons that have sex with young, unsuspecting maids; the “incubus” (a male demon; the “succubus” is its female counterpart) appears in Mesopotamian, German, South American, South African, and Turkish folklore. Why might you think young people introduced those myths?
Apply It. This verse really isn’t about application to daily life as much as it is about application to our theology. If you’re comfortable with it, I would spend your time talking about the incarnation. I would talk about how Jesus is fully God and fully human, yet how we can’t really explain it. If you have any questions about that, let me know and I’ll try to answer them! I would also talk about why it is important that we do believe that Jesus was born of a virgin. If you have any questions or problems with that, please let me know and I’ll do my best to explain/convince.
Aside: Names of Christ in the Gospels
This is an interesting exercise for your class if you have time for it: what are all of the names and titles Jesus receives in His lifetime (in the Gospels)?
Jesus (Matt 1:21) “Yahweh saves”
Emmanuel (Matt 1:23) “God with us”
Christ (Matt 16:16) “Anointed One”
Lord (Matt 22:44) (this term often just means “sir” but also has divine connotations based on usage)
Holy One of God (Mark 1:21)
Son of God (Mark 3:11)
Son of David (Matt 12:23)
Son of Abraham (Matt 1:1)
King of the Jews (Matt 2:2)
Savior (Luke 1:67)
Logos/Word (John 1:1)
Lamb of God (John 1:29)
Good Shepherd (John 10:11)
Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25)
Way, Truth, and Life (John 14:6)
These terms are used in various arrangements in the Gospels, and there are even more given to Him in the rest of the New Testament. When I look at this list, I realize that we can know an awful lot about who Jesus is and what He came to do just from the names and titles He was given or claimed for Himself. He is “God saves” and “God with us” and “Anointed one” and “Divine master” and “Son of God.” I can see giving someone one such title in a symbolic sense, but all of them?
Talk about the names of Christ in class—see if your class members pick up on this!
Part 2: Promised Messiah (Matthew 1:19-23)
So her husband Joseph, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly. But after he had considered these things, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name Him Immanuel, which is translated “God is with us.”
These verses are so rich, and they practically teach themselves, but here are some things you might choose to highlight.
I’ve talked elsewhere in here about betrothal and divorce customs. Mary’s supposed indiscretion could not be ignored, and you can tell that Joseph agonized over this decision for a long time. But before he could do anything permanent, God sent him a message (Luke tells us the angel’s name was Gabriel) in a dream. Matthew points out that Joseph received four messages from God in a dream (!): about Mary, to flee to Egypt (2:13), to return to Israel (2:19), but not to go to Judea (2:22). That had to be amazing, and I wonder what it was like. Feel free to bring up how God talks to people today, but please don’t get too sidetracked by that! The main message in this lesson must be about Jesus’ incarnation!
And what a message Joseph receives! I give you a little bit more about the early names of Jesus on the sidebar to the left. I really want you to highlight why His name must be Jesus. We take Jesus’ mission for granted, but don’t overlook that what Jesus came to do is the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. And all of this is in keeping with Old Testament prophecy, which I hope you remember is a key theme for Matthew. Matthew’s target is Isaiah 7:14, which is actually rather controversial in some circles. Let’s investigate:
In Isaiah 7, evil Ahaz is king of Judah. Two of his great enemies—the northern kingdom of Israel and also Aram—had allied themselves against him, bringing great fear to all of the people of Judah. God told Isaiah that nothing would come of their alliance, that Ahaz simply had not to surrender. To prove it, God gave them a sign: a virgin will give birth to a son. My understanding of what Isaiah thought he meant might be a bit off of your beaten path, so please hear me out. If you read the entire prophecy of Isaiah 7:14-25, it seems pretty clear that we’re talking about a child who lives during the disintegration of the alliance between Israel and Aram, and it turns out to be Isaiah’s own son as described in 8:1-4. Wait, what?! Bear with me. Isaiah knew that his prophecy dealt with current events, so for his purposes, what it meant was that he would marry a virgin (which he did), and the childhood of his son would be the timeline for the fall of Israel (which it was; don’t underestimate how important that event was to the Jews—God’s miraculous signs during such a cataclysmic time would have been expected). BUT the prophecy picked up again in chapter 8 and continued all the way through chapter 12, and this time the scope is a little different. Now, when Isaiah prophesies about the child, he says that the child will reign on the throne of David forever (see Isaiah 9:6-7), and that a shoot will sprout from the stump of Jesse to rule in righteousness and peace (Isaiah 11:1-16). In all three sections of this prophecy, we see important references to a child. But seems like the ordinary fulfillment of an ordinary child in chapter 7 turns into something far more serious in chapter 9 and 11. But Matthew clearly says that Jesus was the fulfillment of all three parts of this prophecy. How does that work?
There is an important interpretive (hermeneutic) principle called typology. Not all prophecy is simply “fulfilled” in the sense that Isaiah 8:3 wraps up the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. God is far more clever than that, and Matthew appreciated that more than any other author of the New Testament. While there are some prophecies with dual fulfillment, more often than not God uses prophecies to highlight a pattern by which He will work. It’s kind of like foreshadowing; events in the Old Testament foreshadow those in the New, and when God injects a prophecy, it’s a flag that we should be on the lookout for such foreshadowing. According to Isaiah 7, there would be a child born during a time when God would defeat His enemies while providing for His people (which did happen). But that event was also designed to prepare God’s people for a time when a future Child would be born who would be a fuller fulfillment of a greater vision. In other words, that child in Isaiah 8 was a “type” of Christ in what he represented. He fulfilled the immediate prophecy of Isaiah 7, but he also pointed to a deeper and wider need whose fulfillment could only be spoken in grand terms as in Isaiah 9. In that way, Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14, just as Mary is the ultimate fulfillment of the virgin.
I doubt you have to try to explain that. I really have a hard time wrapping my mind around it. But there are some great applications to this section. Spend most of your time talking about the amazing Jesus, God-with-us. But there’s also a great application of obedience that you can combine with the next section if you want to (I think I will). Joseph thought he had two options: divorce Mary quietly or have her stoned. But as our Nativity narration explains, God gave him a third option. How many times has God (through the Bible) revealed options to your problems and needs that you hadn’t considered?
Aside: The Virgin Birth—Why It Matters
The virgin birth has become an area of great controversy in the modernist debates of the last century. It would be a true miracle, and a lot of “enlightened” people reject such “nonsense.” Indeed, you will find a lot of people in Christian churches in our area who reject the idea that Jesus was born of a virgin! So, what’s the big deal? Is believing in the virgin birth really a hill on which to die? I say yes, for a number of reasons.
The Gospels are very clear that Mary did not admit to intercourse before conceiving Jesus—either she lied about her conversation with the angel, or the Gospel writers lied in their account. Either is a very big deal and calls into question the veracity of the Bible.
If this doctrine is rejected simply because it is miraculous, then where does that leave us with Jesus’ resurrection or ascension? Or the greatest miracle of all: the forgiveness of our sins by God in Jesus?
Theologically speaking, how could Jesus be God and man if He came from two human parents? And at that point, the concerns related to the “immaculate conception” (see below) and original sin in Jesus have to be considered. And if Jesus is not the perfect, sinless union of divinity and humanity, how can His atonement for our sin be sufficient for all of us?
Because salvation is not purely intellectual, I believe that you can be saved and not believe in the virgin birth, but I believe that such a choice leads one down a very dangerous path in how you teach your faith to others.
Bonus Aside: The Immaculate Conception
To be clear, this has nothing to do with Jesus. This is the doctrine that Mary was conceived without original sin and therefore could not pass it along to Jesus. This is an important Roman Catholic teaching and the source of their willingness to pray to Mary. It was accepted as official doctrine in 1685, clarified in 1854 that “the most blessed Virgin Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin in the first instant of her conception.” In Roman Catholic teaching, Mary did not die, but was assumed body and soul directly into heaven. As a result, she reigns as Queen of heaven and is our intercessor and mediator just as Jesus is. If it turns out that she was a sinner saved by grace just like the rest of us (which she was), this entire doctrine collapses and would be catastrophic to large elements of the Catholic faith. I consider this an example of how human philosophy has corrupted clear biblical teaching.
Part 3: Obedience Required (Matthew 1:24-25)
When Joseph got up from sleeping, he did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her but did not know her intimately until she gave birth to a son. And he named Him Jesus.
You might have noticed that we have no recorded words from Joseph anywhere in the Bible. He is simply a man of action and obedience. That’ll preach! Joseph woke up (probably relieved) and did what the angel said. I imagine that Joseph cut short the betrothal and married Mary so that he could take her into his home where he could protect her and isolate her from ill-will. He really was a righteous man, the kind of model God would want for His Son.
I think the application I will pursue is that God’s plan for redemption still requires obedience/cooperation on the part of people. Mary didn’t have to say yes to the angel; Joseph didn’t have to obey the angel’s words. God chose them because they would. There is a theological debate—did God take a “risk” by sending Jesus into the world as a helpless baby? I believe that there is no chance that Jesus could have failed in His mission, but I also believe that everything happened according to the free choices of the people involved.
That’s still true today. God calls us to trust and obey. He does not force us to follow Jesus. He is going to achieve His purposes for the world through our free cooperation. And if we fail to cooperate, He will find somebody else. But let’s just cooperate! Our journey will not be any harder than that of Mary and Joseph, and God will be just as with us as He was with them. Advent reminds us that our relationship with God in Christ requires our obedience, and also that God will give us what we need to choose the right path. Let’s celebrate that in our discussion on Sunday!
Closing Thoughts: Joseph, Betrothal, and Divorce
It’s hard to do an article just on Joseph because we know so little about him. So little, in fact, that many scholars speculate that he was dead by the time Jesus began His public ministry. We know he was a carpenter (and thus likely taught Jesus that trade), a just man, and from Nazareth. Everything else is myth or legend. In fact, there are debates about who Joseph’s father is. When you read the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, you notice they are different. When I preached on this two years ago, I told you that Matthew gave Joseph’s line (his focus is on Joseph) and Luke gave Mary’s line (his focus is clearly on Mary). How would that work? If Mary were an only child, for example, Joseph would have become the legal/inheritance/levirate son. And since Jesus is only Joseph’s son in a legal/adoptive sense, either family line would be sufficient. [Editor's note: in the years since I wrote this, I've found multiple compelling explanations of how both Matthew and Luke could be giving Joseph's line, and indeed it would make more sense if both were Joseph's lines.]
He was clearly a good man, else God would not have chosen him to be Jesus’ earthly father. Remember that a Jewish father was tasked with teaching his son the Law! This bleeds over into his approach to Mary. In Joseph’s day, many people were betrothed while children (an arrangement between families). Then, when teenagers, the couple would consent to the arrangement (or reject it). This would have been done in the presence of witnesses and be legally binding—the couple were considered husband and wife, but not live together (or possibly be allowed to be alone together). If the man died, the woman was considered a widow. Being found with child, Mary would have been labelled an adulterer, and at the very least be divorced from their betrothal. It is quite possible that Joseph cut the betrothal short and married Mary quickly so as to prevent gossip and questioning.
Most betrothals lasted about a year. After this, the wedding ceremony would lead to a consummation of the relationship and the couple would begin to make a life and home together. Note that Mary remained a virgin until after Jesus’ birth.