“Now, Jesus Christ’s beginning was as follows: When His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was discovered to be with child by the Holy Spirit. So, Joseph, her husband, being a righteous man yet not desiring to disgrace her, resolved to quietly divorce her. But after he had considered these things; 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. Because that which is begotten in her is by the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you will call His name ‘Jesus’ because He will save His people from their sins.’ Now, all of this occurred in order to fulfill the word from the Lord through the prophet saying: ‘Behold! the virgin will be with child and will bear a son and they will call his name ‘Immanuel’’ Which being translated is: ‘With us, God!’ After waking from sleep, Joseph did what the angel of the Lord commanded him and took her as his wife. Yet he did not know her until after she bore a son, and he called His name ‘Jesus.’”
This passage is often referred to as one of two “birth narratives” (the second appearing in Luke), yet there is nothing within this narrative regarding the birth of Jesus. The noun γένεσις, often translated as “birth” in v. 18 is the same term used in v. 1. Is this a birth narrative or is this a “beginning” narrative? It is imperative that we connect this section to the previous one for two reasons. First, Matthew is now delivering the goods of his title in 1:1. The name of the book is the “book of beginnings of Jesus Christ” (Βίβλος γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ). Here he states that the “beginning of Jesus Christ is as follows…” (τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἡ γένεσις οὕτως ἦν). It is here that we read the beginning of this Once called “Christ”. Secondly, these verses answer all the implied questions from v. 16. Matthew was very careful not to make Joseph the father of Jesus when he stated that Jesus was born by Mary rather than begotten of Joseph. Yet that begs several questions: (1) Who begat Jesus? (2) Why bother with Joseph at all? (3) How then is Jesus truly called a son of David? (4) What kind of woman is Mary? All these questions are resolved in the following text.
It is also important to remember that we are tracing Matthew’s argument rather than creating a man-made, arbitrary, and subjective harmony of the gospel accounts. We are not interested, at this juncture, what Luke, Mark, or John have to say on the material at hand. We seek Matthew’s intention first. With that in mind, we should make the following observation: This narrative is exclusively from Joseph’s perspective. Not a word is mentioned from Mary’s point of view. Her voice is not heard, and her actions are unrecorded. Matthew only presents Joseph’s perspective and so we will follow only Joseph’s perspective at this point.
Joseph’s Uninformed Situation (vv. 18-19)
Matthew’s development of a new Genesis continues with this introductory narrative of Jesus’ beginning. If the first Adam certainly had a miraculous beginning, even that beginning fails to compare with the miraculous beginning of the greater Adam. This beginning is seen through the eyes of Joseph, Mary’s husband and yet this is one of the many instances in Scripture where the reader knows more than the people within the narrative. Job, for example, is seemingly the only person who does not know why he suffers. Likewise, Joseph is the only person who does not understand the scope or even the details of the situation in which he finds himself.
The Facts as Seen by Joseph (v. 18)
“Now, Jesus Christ’s beginning was as follows: When His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was discovered to be with child by the Holy Spirit.”
This is the explanation of v. 16 and the true beginning of Jesus as advertised in v. 1. Nothing more needs to be said concerning the connection to vv. 1-17.
The narrative begins in the context of a betrothal between Mary (Jesus’ mother) and Joseph. It is a grave mistake to make any sort of connection between this martial arrangement (μνηστεύω) and our western idea of an engagement. The two concepts have little to nothing in common. An engagement is a social agreement between a man and a woman with zero legal ramifications. While this is seen as a pledge that leads to marriage, the engagement comes with none of the protections, blessings, or responsibilities of marriage. As such, an engagement can be broken off without legal ramifications because no union has taken place. None of these things are true of a betrothal.
The situation described here as a betrothal is not a step that is leading up to marriage so much as it is the first step of the marriage already in effect. This custom secured a young girl while allowing her to reach physical maturity while also allowing the groom to secure a stable living. The maiden would remain living with her parents and the two would not yet enjoy the blessings of marital life, but she is now under the authority of her husband. Vows have already been taken. Dowries have already been paid. Any obligations that the marriage contract required have already been met. From a legal standpoint, Mary and Joseph are already married and yet have not yet come together. The indication is that they have not yet moved in together and thus have not yet had sexual congress. It is at this point that Mary was discovered to be with child.
The passive verb (εὑρέθη ἐν γαστρὶ) literally means “she was found with child”. Because Mary is the subject of the passive verb and no other person is mentioned here, the implication is that Joseph discovered this for himself. Pregnancy is a condition not long kept secret. Though, the idea that this pregnancy was kept a secret is an assumption that modern audiences often make. Nothing is said to indicate that Mary hid her pregnancy. In fact, the reader of Matthew would do well to assume absolutely nothing of Mary, because we’re told nothing of her perspective. However, the audience does enjoy an important piece of information yet unknown to Joseph. Mary is pregnant by means of the Holy Spirit. Matthew uses the same preposition (ἐκ) used repeatedly through vv. 1-17 to indicate the means of conception. It may not be clear what the Holy Spirit’s role is at this juncture, but the reader now knows that Mary is not guilty of infidelity. This fact, however, is not yet seen by Joseph.
The Options Available to Joseph (v. 19)
“So, Joseph, her husband, being a righteous man yet not desiring to disgrace her, resolved to quietly divorce her”
Joseph is again presented as Mary’s husband. As such, he must act. There is no passive response available to him. His wife is pregnant, and he knows that he is not the father. This is not something that can be ignored. This verse weighs Joseph’s options.
Because he is a righteous man, Joseph cannot remain married to Mary. The idea is not that Joseph is inherently right before God of his own accord, but that he lives consistently in obedience to the law. He cannot marry a harlot. He is thinking not only of his reputation, but of the family he hopes to raise. What kind of a man would welcome an unfaithful woman into his home as the future mother of his children? She is not simply a lewd and loose woman. She is unfaithful, having broken her word and her bond to him. This woman will not do. Yet there is no reason to open this young girl to public shame.
The adjoining καὶ is almost seen as an adversative (yet) and thus presents the two thoughts as joint motivations for Joseph’s actions. If Joseph calls for a trial, then a full-blown investigation will ensue calling for witnesses and testimony. There is the possibility that Mary is not guilty of adultery and is only the victim of rape. Yet, what if she is not? Besides, the child within her is not Joseph’s and he is under zero obligation to raise him. He has no desire to open Mary up to such scrutiny and shame. The answer is therefore to write her a certificate of divorce and send her away.
The course that Joseph determined to take is the more honorable one. A trial would have vindicated him from any wrongdoing in the eyes of the community, yet at what price? A divorce was a simple affair in 1st century Judaea. All that is required is a written certificate from the husband placed into the hand of the woman in question in the presence of two witnesses. That’s it. The marriage is now dissolved. This is the course that Joseph has resolved to follow. The indication is that less than twenty-four hours elapse between when Joseph discovered Mary’s condition and when he determined what to do about it. First thing in the morning, he will put his plan into action.
God Reveals the Full Situation (vv. 20-23)
Because Joseph is a righteous man, there is no reason to think that he is going to sit on this decision. He has evaluated the facts known to him and has come to a decision. That decision will be put into execution with the morning light. Yet, as the reader knows, there are certain facts that Joseph is not aware of. Now is the time for God to reveal to Joseph what the reader already knows.
Joseph’s Ignorance is Enlightened (vv. 20-21)
“But after he had considered these things; 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. Because that which is begotten in her is by the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you will call His name ‘Jesus’ because He will save His people from their sins.’”
The scene is quite dramatic. Matthew leaves little time for any intervention. Joseph has already considered what to do and has determined to to it. With the morning will come a divorce. Yet after these things, Behold! The Hebraic ἰδοὺ is an attention getter (look!, behold!, check it out!). What follows is important, but also completely unexpected. An angel of the Lord does not normally appear in dreams to relay information. Maybe Joseph the son of Jacob should have expected to be a dreamer of dreams, but this does not seem to be the case.
The angel addresses Joseph as a prince of Israel. “Son of David” is a messianic title (only here used of someone not Jesus) and a title of royalty. It is doubtful that Joseph had ever been called that before. By doing so, the angel tips his hand regarding the purpose of his visit. Joseph is a legitimate son of David. This child must also be a legitimate heir to David’s throne. Joseph is required to make that happen, but he must play ball. For this reason, he is not just encouraged, but commanded to take Mary as his wife. The idea is not to marry her, but to complete the marriage by bringing her to his home. This command is running in the opposite direction of Joseph’s plans. Why would he do such a thing? The angel continues by providing the reason (γὰρ). That which is in her is from the Holy Spirit. Now, Joseph knows all that the reader knows.
The Greek here is very specific. The active agent of this pregnancy is the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit alone. Twice the preposition ἐκ is used to communicate the source or means of the pregnancy. Mary not here referred to as the means of conception by the angel (ἐκ) but as a simple location of the conception. The angel refers to that which is conceived in her (τὸ γὰρ ἐν αὐτῇ γεννηθὲν) dismissing the possible accusation of passive participation. Mary has broken no vow, nor has she been violated. The child within her is from (ἐκ) God the Holy Spirit and is not a product of sexual union. Because no contract has been breached, there is no reason to divorce her. In fact, if Joseph is a righteous man, he cannot divorce her for she has done nothing wrong. But more than that, it is necessary for Joseph to take this woman so that he is the one to name him.
Three verbs are found in v. 21 with three different subjects. Mary is going to bear a son. Joseph is going to call/name Him “Jesus.” And Jesus is going to save His people from their sin. Mary’s role is straightforward and is frankly completely out of her hands. Joseph’s role is extremely significant because in naming this child he claims it as his own. By naming Him, Joseph legally pronounces Jesus as a son of David and heir to the throne.
The name “Jesus” has much more obvious significance in Hebrew (יְהוֹשׁוּעַ) than in Greek (Ἰησοῦς). “Jesus” is an Aramaic version of the Hebrew “Joshua”, both of which are built on the verb “to save/deliver” (ישׁע). The full meaning of the name “Joshua” or “Jesus” highlights Yhwh as the savior (lit. Yhwh, He will save). This child is not born of human seed and is yet a seed of a woman. This child is to be in the line of David, the king. And this child is to be called “Yhwh, He will save” because it is this child who will save His people from their sins. Note that the angel does not say that Jesus will save His people from the penalty of their sins (though true), but from their sins themselves. This One is more than an atonement (though certainly not less). This One will break, undo, and reverse the curse that is sin. That’s the reason why Joseph must take this woman as his wife. The child she carries is THE promised Seed.
Joseph’s Theology is Completed (vv. 22-23)
“Now, all of this occurred in order to fulfill the word from the Lord through the prophet saying: ‘Behold! the virgin will be with child and will bear a son and they will call his name ‘Immanuel’’ Which being translated is: ‘With us, God!’”
The revelation from the angel has ceased and Matthew inserts his own commentary. This is to fulfill what the Lord said. It is telling that Matthew makes a distinction between the word of God and the word of the prophet in that the authority comes from God. He read and submit to Isaiah’s prophecy, not because it came from Isaiah but because the words came from God through Isaiah.
Of all the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, it is interesting that Matthew chose Isaiah 7:14. One might think that emphasizing Mary as the woman whose seed would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15) might be more fitting. After all, the angelic revelation explains why the seed is the woman’s seed and not a man’s seed. Yet Matthew points to Isaiah because the overarching point is to connect Jesus to David’s line and that is the context of Isaiah 7.
Context of Isaiah 7: In the days of Ahaz (see Matt. 1:9) king of Judah, the kings of Israel and Aram formed a coalition in order to besiege Jerusalem, destroy the Davidic line, and set up a vassal king in Judah who would serve them. Their goal was to destroy the promised line of the seed. Isaiah is dispatched to encourage Ahaz and tell him that no such thing will happen. The Davidic line will remain intact while both the houses of Israel and Aram will fall. This encouragement concludes with something of a warning: “If you will not believe, you surely shall not last” (Is. 7:9 NASB). The terms “believe” (תַאֲמִינוּ) and “last” (תֵאָמֵנוּ) are both from the same root אמן, the root of our term “amen.” There’s a play on words going on here. The sense is that if Ahaz does not trust these words and act on them (believe, find faithful/dependable/established) then he will not be reliable, faithful, established. How he treats these words determines the stability of his reign.
Ahaz reveals his unbelief in the following verses. Yhwh (not Isaiah) commands Ahaz to ask for a sign and Ahaz refuses (vv. 10-12). Ahaz is rebuked (v. 13) but is rebuked as a token for the entire house of David. The sign is not for or concerning Ahaz in particular, but for the entire house of David; i.e., the Davidic line. The sign includes more than a virgin giving birth to a child. The child is called “Immanuel”, transliterated in English from the Hebrew עִמָּנוּ אֵל which means “with us, God!” Yet this child, who is supposed to be the fulfillment of the Davidic line, is not born in the context of royal splendor, but within the context of wilderness wandering. Curds and honey (v. 15) do not make the breakfast of champions but of Bedouins. This foodstuff is typical of nomads. The line of the David will survive. The enemies of the line will be destroyed. But the Seed will be born in poverty. Isaiah’s point is this: Ahaz will not fall to the current threat and God will keep His promise to David. But as for Ahaz’s house, it will fall so that the Seed to come will not grow up in a palace but on the prairie.
Many have argued that Isaiah’s virgin (עַלְמָה) only indicates a young woman and does not necessitate virginity. Yet the term is never used of a female who is married and is only used in contexts that demand the subject is sexually inexperienced (Gen. 24:43; Ex. 2:8; Is. 7:14; Ps. 68:25; Prov. 30:19; Song. 1:3; 6:8). Gone are the days when “maiden” naturally implied virginity. The fact that the virgin bears a son and calls him “with us, God!” is nothing short of a prophecy linking all the way back to the promised seed of Gen. 3:15. Isaiah offers Ahaz a sign of the seed of the woman who will crush the head of the serpent. But this sign will come only after both Judah and her enemies are no more. The line will remain established, but Ahaz’ kingdom will not (v. 9).
Matthew’s Understanding of Isaiah 7: Matthew’s commentary could not be simpler. Mary is not like the young woman of Ahaz’s day. She is the virgin prophesied to Ahaz. The child within her is not like the child promised to Ahaz. He is the child that is born in David’s line but not in David’s palace. This child is the literal fulfillment of God’s presence with Israel because He was begotten by means of God the Holy Spirit. This is God with us! All these pieces begin to fall into place within Joseph’s mind and he knows what he must do.
Joseph’s Informed Response (vv. 24-25)
Joseph was on the verge of making some poor decisions, but only because his information was incomplete. Now that he understands the situation and is informed of the facts in their totality, he sets off to live as a righteous man ought: with immediate and continued obedience.
Joseph’s Immediate Obedience (v. 24)
“After waking from sleep, Joseph did what the angel of the Lord commanded him and took her as his wife.”
Joseph went to bed knowing that he had a full day of it come morning. In that sense, nothing changed. The indication is that he set to work as soon as he awoke. Yet rather than going to Mary’s home to hand her a certificate of divorce, he arrives in order to bring her home with him. He immediately set about the task of obedience and lost not a minute. Even the verbal sequence mirrors the commands of the angel in vv. 20-21. Joseph took, Mary bore, and Joseph names.
Joseph’s Continued Obedience (v. 25)
“Yet he did not know her until after she bore a son, and he called His name ‘Jesus.’”
A careful reading of the text will note that the angel never commanded Joseph to keep Mary a virgin until after the child was born. Why did Joseph not partake in his husbandly right after Mary was brought into his home? The answer is strikingly simple: because Joseph knew Is. 7:14 applied directly to Mary. It is not enough that a virgin would be with child. A virgin also had to bear a son known as “God with us.” Mary’s virginity had to remain intact through the pregnancy until the child was born in order to fulfill the prophecy of Immanuel. Joseph knew this and because he believed this child was in fact Immanuel, he continued to obey by keeping Mary a virgin until after the birth of a son.
Joseph completed his obedience by naming this son “Jesus.” The child is now officially and legally a son of David by means of Mary, the wife of Joseph. According to Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is the first person to respond in faith to Jesus as the Christ, the son of David and the son of Abraham.
It’s amazing to consider how robust Joseph’s biblical understanding must have been. He knew the implications of the virgin birth as associate with Isaiah 7:14 and the connection to the promised seed of the woman. He also understood his connection to the whole scenario as a son of David and the necessity of his role. It’s almost as if Joseph were looking for this promised seed to come, or at least rested in the hope that He would come. The vast majority of Israel is awash with apostasy, yet there seems to be a few who remain as a faithful remnant. Joseph is identified by Matthew as the first to trust in Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. He will not be the last.
Joseph’s faith is demonstrated by his immediate and ongoing obedience. His actions would have certainly drawn negative attention. If Joseph knew Mary was pregnant, others would have noticed as well. Joseph was unconcerned with what the neighbors thought or said. He blocked out all else except for obedience to his Lord. Joseph sets the precedent for others to follow. Some who we meet in Matthew’s gospel will follow this precedent. Sadly, most will not. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Faith in Jesus is not a slogan to be repeated. It is a life which is demonstrated by immediate and ongoing obedience. The faithful are the obedient, not the boisterous, flamboyant, popular, or mainstream. May we strive to be obedient.
Soli Deo Gloria!
 David Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 64.  David Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993), p. 20-1.  Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 27.  R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 39-42.  Turner, p. 66-7.  Garland, p. 21-2.  Walter Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), p. 160.