The Birth of Jesus Christ

I love the way Matthew’s version of the Nativity begins: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” Let me tell you a story. This is how it happened. Here’s what I was told.

That doesn’t mean this is a Jack Webb, “just the facts, ma’am” approach. Matthew is not a dispassionate historian; he’s a zealous disciple, seeking to make others into disciples of Christ. But the way he approaches the Nativity says that this is not mythology, but an accurate portrayal of events to which he was not a party, but which have been conveyed to him truthfully.

While Luke concentrates on Mary, Jesus’ mother, and her encounter with God’s plans for her, Matthew focuses on Joseph, the sometimes forgotten figure in the Nativity. We aren’t told much about Joseph, save that he was a “just man,” and a merciful one, who was determined that his betrothed not be held up to public ridicule or scorn for being pregnant before marriage. But as he was contemplating how to end his relationship with the young woman, he was the recipient of a great gift.

The God of Israel sent an angel, a messenger, to him, that he might be clued into what was going on. It turns out that Mary had not been unfaithful, but that the Child within her was the result of the direct action of God. There was no need for divorce (ending an engagement was the equivalent of divorce in those days), but instead Joseph should go ahead and marry Mary, and rejoice that the baby would Himself be a gift of God, not only to the two parents, but to all of humanity.

The Child who would be Joseph’s son as well as God’s is referred to by two names. One, Y’shua, means “God is salvation,” and points to the mission of the Child as the Savior of God’s people. The other, Immanu-el, means “God with us,” and points to the person of the Child as the incarnation of God on Earth. Joseph would not, I suspect, have had a clear idea about just how profound a truth he was being told about the latter (even if he was familiar with Isaiah 7:14, I think it very unlikely that he would have associated “God with us” with the idea of God’s enfleshment, which was not part of the messianic expectations of the day). Regarding the former, however, I think he would have had an immediate intuition that this Child was the One whom Israel had been waiting for for so many centuries.

All of this came to him in a dream. We have a tendency to brush off our dreams as inconsequential, at most expressions of the flotsam and jetsam of our unconscious minds. But in the first century, there was little doubt that God could and did speak to His people through the medium of dreams. So Joseph, being a faithful man, did as he was instructed, took Mary for his wife, Jesus (the Greek version of Y’shua) for his son, and the two of them for his family.

And that’s how it happened.