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The Life of Jesus - Series 1: Episode 8

An angel announces Jesus' birth to Joseph

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph is reassured by an angel in a dream. Matthew quotes from the Old Testament which is explained, together with three forms of Old Testament prophecy used in the New Testament. Joseph and Mary marry.

Joseph is reassured by an angel in a dream. Matthew quotes from the Old Testament which is explained, together with three forms of Old Testament prophecy used in the New Testament. Joseph and Mary marry.


Hello and welcome to Series 1 and Episode 8 entitled: 'An Angel Announces Jesus' Birth to Joseph'.


We are going to be studying Matthew's Gospel chapter 1. The beautiful thing about studying the Gospels together, is that we can connect together the narrative and stories given by different writers.This is a thing we have to do in life, isn't it? If two or three people, tell you something that happened in the marketplace, or in school, or in business, they will give you different versions; - different facts from different perspectives. That is what happens with the gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In the particular issue that we are talking about now - the birth narratives surrounding Jesus' birth and everything associated with it - the two writers who focus on this are Matthew and Luke. In order to understand the story, we have to integrate the accounts that they give us. Luke writes primarily from the point of view of Mary, as we have seen in the recent episodes we have been looking at, which I will refer to again in a moment; and Matthew writes primarily from the perspective of Joseph - as we shall see in our episode today. Luke has really paved the way and provided very important material for us, which we have been studying in the last few episodes. He has been explaining how the angel Gabriel appeared both to Zechariah, a junior priest working in the Temple, and subsequently to Mary, an engaged woman in Nazareth in Galilee (engaged to Joseph but not yet married). How Gabriel appeared to these two individuals and prophesied and told them what was going to happen: the two children born miraculously were going to be conceived very shortly and they were going to be very significant in God's purposes. I don't want to go over the whole story again in detail, I would encourage you to view, listen to or read those episodes, if you haven't done so, in connection with this one.

If you are following the story through, you will be familiar with the fact that the point we have got to in the narrative is that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth have had their child, John, who was named John rather than the traditional naming of the son after the father (so he might have been named Zechariah, but it was particularly clear that the parents said “No, he's going to be called John,” because the angel said that is his name and John means the grace of God). That event has happened and Zechariah prophesied, in a wonderful passage we saw in the last episode, that his son is going to be a prophet of God - is going to prepare the way for God's salvation to come. That is remarkable!

Then, of course, we have Mary's story - but it is not yet a complete story. Luke has told us only about the way that Gabriel appeared to Mary while she was on her own, before she was married (while she was engaged), and revealed to her that she would become pregnant supernaturally through the power of the Holy Spirit and the presence of God. This would be before she had any sexual relationship with her husband or any other man. Mary's pregnancy is established and all we know is that she spent three months in the Judean Hills with her relative, Elizabeth, in the latter stages of Elizabeth's pregnancy - probably the last three months of her pregnancy.

There is a lot that we still don't know about Mary's story. Having visited her relative, Elizabeth, in the Judean Hills, she returned to Galilee, her family home.


It is very hard to imagine what was going to happen next because what was Joseph going to do about this pregnancy, once he discovers it? It is only a matter of time before her pregnancy will become obvious. He is engaged to her, he loves her and he is an honourable man but if you are engaged, and your betrothed partner becomes pregnant and you are not in a sexual relationship with her, for most people that only means one thing - unfaithfulness and adultery. What on earth is going to happen to this relationship - this prospective marriage? What is going to happen to the baby? What is going to happen to Mary? Of course, it is not unknown to God. This passage shows God's gracious intervention in the life of Joseph that helps him, and helps Mary, beyond all measure, to deal with this unique responsibility and situation which they both find themselves in. So let us read the passage in Matthew 1:18 - 25:

“This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.”

Matthew 1:18-25, NIV

Joseph's dilemma was a very powerful and painful one. As mentioned in earlier episodes, engagement in Jewish society was as strong a commitment as marriage itself. It bound the couple together and it was merely a matter of time before the wedding celebrations and then living in the same household and starting an intimate sexual relationship together. Engagement automatically led to marriage and engagement could only be broken by divorce - this is contrary to many modern societies. That is why there is a mention of Joseph thinking later on maybe he would divorce Mary, in other words, end their engagement. Joseph faced a terrible dilemma. Mary would have told him, no doubt, the circumstances in which she became pregnant in her own words. He would have to decide whether he believed her and he had to face up to the fact that the woman he loved was going to have a baby and he wasn't going to be the biological father. Did he want to marry her still? Did he want to take on that responsibility? How would he deal with the social consequences in their community when Mary would be considered by all to be unfaithful to Joseph in the engagement or betrothal period (that would have been the obvious conclusion that people would have drawn?

There was a kind of social risk; a great sense of the fear of misunderstanding and, particularly, there was a risk of shame. We will quite often need to return to this theme as we study the life of Jesus. Many of our cultures around the world are based on a great desire to have, and maintain, honour in our communities and particularly in our families, and to avoid anything shameful. Any action that we might do that would bring shame on the family is something with enormous social consequences - sometimes devastating consequences. Sexual unfaithfulness and adultery is an example of something that usually brings great shame - especially if it brings about a pregnancy and this pregnancy is known to be the result of sexual unfaithfulness. In this particular case it would be known, so to speak, to be out of unfaithfulness because the culture was that Joseph and Mary would be living separate lives. The misunderstanding and the shame was a big issue. When Joseph decided that the best thing might be for him to divorce her quietly, the significance of this is not him rejecting her, but him finding a way to minimise the scandal and to protect her from hostility as much as possible. It was a human solution, by a compassionate man.

Joseph's Dream

It turned out not to be the right solution at all but this is the way he was thinking - until he had a dream. In a dream there appeared an angel. If we look back at Luke's account, we will have already noticed the angel Gabriel has appeared twice: first to Zechariah in the Temple, secondly to Mary, at home in Nazareth, on her own. Here an angel appears, not in a direct vision in consciousness, but in a dream. God uses dreams. Sometimes dreams can have very special significance and we can usually tell when that is the case. This dream was vivid, clear and unambiguous to Joseph. The angel reassures Joseph that he should take Mary home as his wife and that the child is going to be miraculously born and was miraculously conceived - is not a result of adultery- and that he should take on the fatherly role and the husband's role towards her. He even tells Joseph the name the child was to have - the name being Jesus - because he will save his people from their sins. This is really extraordinary. So much divine, supernatural revelation is coming to the key participants to help them deal with these two incredible pregnancies and these two remarkable children. John, who becomes John the Baptist, and supremely, Jesus: the Son of God and the son of Mary.

Old Testament Prophecy

Matthew reflects on this account, as he often does. He makes a comment that incorporates some Old Testament quotation or prophecy. This is something that Matthew does frequently and we will see this happening time and again in our studies. Matthew was very orientated towards the Jewish people; he was writing with Jews in mind, very particularly, and they, of course, were interested in Old Testament fulfilment of prophecy and trying to work out whether Jesus was connected to their Old Testament faith - and Matthew uses prophecy to point in that direction. Let us pause for a moment on this particular prophecy and think about it. Verse 22:

“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet (that's Isaiah): “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).”

Matthew 1:22, NIV

This is a quotation from Isaiah 7: 14. It is a very well-known prophecy. The remarkable thing about it, however, is that this prophecy is given in a completely different context. The prophet Isaiah lived a very long time in the ancient kingdom of Judah and he worked with, spoke to and prophesied to a number of Kings. One of them was called King Ahaz, and at the time of Isaiah writing, King Ahaz was a young man and, as far as we can tell, unmarried. He has been threatened by a military alliance: two nations, the Aramites and the Israelites to the north (the Israelite kingdom being divided in two at the time). There is a serious military threat and the prophet Isaiah predicts that a virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and call him Emmanuel. As the prophecy and the narrative goes on, we see that in the lifetime of this child, and through this child, this military threat will be turned away and overcome. In fact it will evaporate - it will disintegrate - and this will be a sign that God is with the people of Judah. That is what Isaiah is talking about in very basic terms.

I have mentioned in other places and I will mention this on a number of occasions during these studies, Old Testament quotations in the New Testament come in basically three forms: one is a direct prophecy where an Old Testament prophet prophesies something in the New Testament and and it is very clear when that New Testament event takes place that this is a direct fulfilment of that. We call that a direct prophecy, a direct prediction. Such-and-such will happen, and it happens once, specifically during the life of Jesus. The second type of prophecy is what we call a typological prophecy, where one event takes place which is as a result of a prophecy or connected to prophetic word; but then we see a recapitulation or development, a similar type of event takes place a second time in the New Testament period. That is what we are dealing with here because, in the first instance, this prophecy is fulfilled in the lifetime of Ahaz because a woman who was a virgin (i.e. unmarried) at the time that Isaiah prophesied would have a special child shortly after that and in the lifetime of that child this military threat would be overturned. It is very likely that this is a reference to a woman, unmarried at this time, who would marry the king, Ahaz, and have his son, Hezekiah, who, in the later part of Isaiah, delivers Israel from these types of military threats. But Matthew sees a second fulfilment. What he sees is that what happened then, is happening again in a more dramatic sense. You see, Ahaz was a king in the line of King David - he was a Davidic king - and there was promise over the monarchy of David that it would be unique, special, and ultimately would be fulfilled in the future in a bigger way. What Matthew sees here is that a virgin, in this context an unmarried woman, is going to have a special son who is going to show that God is with the people in a unique way and he is also going to be connected to King David because he is going to be descended from King David and become the king of the nation and bring in the Kingdom of God for the whole world.

Old Testament quotations come in three forms: direct prophecies, typological prophecies like this one - we will see one or two as we go through the Gospels - and then a third category, something we call applications, where a statement in the Old Testament, which isn't particularly a prophecy of the future, is seen to describe one thing which is very similar to something happening in the New Testament. An application is a descriptive statement with usually more than one fulfilment. A typological prophecy is a prediction with more than one fulfilment. The reason for going into this detail, is to show you that this isn't just an arbitrary thing that Matthew just conjures up a verse out the Old Testament that is convenient. He is seeing two events that have a similar implication - and the implication is: the nation is going to be saved dramatically by a special, unique son showing that God is with the people. That is what happened with Ahaz's son, Hezekiah, and that is exactly what happened, in a different way, with Mary's son, Jesus.

Joseph and Mary Marry

This is a well-known but very remarkable story. It is a great sign of God's grace that Joseph receives his own authoritative, personal revelation because he has got a very difficult place in this story - and it enables him to make the right decision. So he doesn't divorce Mary, as he thought of doing; he took Mary home as his wife. They became formally married, living in the same family home, and this is the context in which the baby, Jesus, was to be born shortly afterwards. Joseph was preparing to give this baby the name Jesus, which was the name God had designated for him.


Some final reflections as we come to the end of this study. We have already seen what an outstanding character Mary is. We have reflected on the tremendously difficult circumstances she faced: the challenges, the uncertainty, the risks that she faced relationally, economically, socially. It was such a difficult dilemma for her to be in and she rose to the occasion wonderfully well and we will see her continuing to do that. We have already said, in previous episodes, how we can look to Mary as a remarkable example and, of course, women can look to her as an example of womanhood and motherhood and godly living. We want to add in another dimension by saying, actually, we can also see in Joseph a morally upright and mature man who rises to a very difficult occasion with grace, with confidence, clear thinking and clear decision-making. He presses on. He marries Mary. He absorbs the consequences of this unexpected pregnancy which would affect the whole of his life, the whole of the rest of his family permanently - nothing would ever be the same again - because his firstborn would be Jesus and he would only be the stepfather. He would know, from the beginning, that Jesus was going to be a unique human being, with a divine mission that would take him far away from the family and could cause great difficulty within the family.

We know, later on, that Joseph and Mary had quite a number of other children - at least six (at least four sons and two daughters are identified in the Gospel narrative). It was a big family and Jesus was the firstborn, but he was unique, and his life was going to take a very unusual course. Joseph took the tough decisions. He took the social stigma. He stuck with Mary and he supported her in her pregnancy and as a mother. He is to be admired. Those of us who have parental responsibilities - and speaking particularly to men who may have responsibilities in marriage and to children or grandchildren - can I encourage you to use Joseph as an example even when circumstances of your responsibilities may be very difficult.

Another reflection is to say that Old Testament prophecy of the Messiah, the special anointed Son of David, are very important and they will occur frequently in our studies, particularly when we are looking at Matthew's Gospel. There will be much more to be said on this in the future and I will comment specifically on how we are to understand those prophecies to help you along the journey.

My final comment is to say this passage speaks, unambiguously and clearly, about the fact that Jesus' birth was a virgin birth - a miraculous, virgin birth. Matthew is as unambiguous about this as Luke is in his account. We should be very clear about this: the Christian faith is founded on this miraculous event and although some people would want to water it down, or compromise it (say that it doesn't really matter or didn't really happen that way), the Bible is absolutely clear about this; Matthew and Luke's accounts are unambiguous - it was a miracle. It defies explanation. It is a miracle. It is an act of God's divine grace that he should send his Son, his Eternal Son, to earth to become a human being through this miraculous circumstance. The virgin birth is a sign of the uniqueness of Jesus that sets him apart from all other religious leaders at an absolutely fundamental level. He was the Son of God: equally human and equally divine.

Thanks for reading.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. If Joseph had lived in your world, what kinds of difficulties would he have faced?
    2. How does shame play a part in your culture?
  • Discipleship
    1. Joseph faced social problems for the way he stood by Mary. What tough decisions are made in your culture today?
    2. Consider Joseph as a ‘morally upright and mature man who rises to a very difficult occasion with grace, confidence, clear thinking and clear decision-making.’ Pray for Christian men you know - to have that same maturity and moral integrity.
    3. Think about the role of the angel and therefore God's direct intervention in guiding Joseph.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Three types of prophecy are mentioned in this episode. Explain what you understand of the three different types.
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