The Birth of Christ

The gospel of Matthew was written to teach the Jewish community that Jesus was the promised Messiah of Israel. The teachings and miracles of Christ, his person, his life, and his mission served as evidence that Christ was the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament and of the aspirations of the nation for a coming Messiah.

Nativity Scene
by S. Marco Londonio
Milan, 1750

Matthew taught that the Messiah, the true king of Israel, came to establish a kingdom much different from the earthly kingdom of Jewish expectations. Matthew introduced his gospel by presenting Jesus as the son of Abraham, in whose seed all the families of the earth would be blessed, and as the son of David, whose kingdom the Messiah would establish forever.

Matthew also cited several passages from the Old Testament in order to demonstrate his argument that Jesus Christ, the son of David, was the Messiah of Israel.

Today, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, this post will focus on the birth of Jesus and the reason for his nativity. In the Holy Child of Bethlehem, we meet God, the God who came to save his people from their sins.

The Announcement of the Birth

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’” (Matthew 1:18–21).

Matthew, after presenting genealogical evidence for the royal descendance of Christ, proceeded to describe the miraculous conception. He carefully sought to affirm the fact that Jesus was not humanly conceived. Mary had gone to visit Elizabeth and stayed with her three months, until the birth of John.

After that time Mary returned to the home of her family, for she was not yet married to Joseph. After her return, it was evident to Joseph that Mary was with child. The apparent unfaithfulness of Mary caused some doubts in the mind of Joseph. These doubts were an indication that he was unaware of the announcement of the birth of the child by the angel.

Joseph was a just man, and as such he was obedient to the laws and to the commandments of God. He did not desire to expose his bride to public ignominy and to the harsh punishment demanded by the law (Deuteronomy 22:23–24). Thus, he proposed to separate from Mary secretly, by giving her a letter of divorce according to Jewish customs.

One night an angel of God came to Joseph in a dream and exhorted him to take Mary publicly as his wife, declaring that the child in Mary was the work of the Holy Spirit. It was necessary in God’s plans to make Jesus part of Joseph’s family until the mystery of his birth could be revealed.

The virgin birth of Christ was a necessary element of the divine work of redemption. The great miracle and mystery of the virgin birth of Christ was evidence that God alone worked for the salvation of mankind. The redemption of humanity could not be derived from fallen humanity, but by a direct intervention of the Creator himself.

The name of the Holy Child would be Jesus, because he would save his people from their sins. The name Jesus is equivalent to the Hebrew name Joshua. The name derives from the Hebrew word for salvation, and it indicates that in Christ God himself had come to save his people.

Christ came to save, and his salvation is freely given to all who, believing, accept him as Lord and Savior.

The Prophecy of the Birth

“All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus” (Matthew 1:22–25).

The birth of Jesus and several aspects of his life and ministry were the fulfillment of the Messianic hope of the Old Testament. Isaiah 7:l4 is a prophetic oracle in which the prophet predicted the role that the child Emmanuel would play in the history of Israel. The child was a sign that God would intervene directly to save Judah in her conflict against the Syrian army. In this intervention everyone would know that God was with them.

To Matthew, Emmanuel became a prophetic name for Christ. In Christ, God himself is with us. In him we see love in action and in him we see the fulfillment of God’s promises. He is with us to save and to deliver. In Christ we find the certainty of God’s deliverance; through him we can lift up our hearts in hopeful expectation of victory. In him we know that we are not alone.

With his fears reassured by the wonderful message of the angel, Joseph awoke and took Mary as his wife, however, abstaining from all intimate sexual relations with her until after the birth of the child.

The Place of the Birth

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:1–7).

The birth of Christ happened in the days when Caesar Augustus ordered a census of all the subjects of the Roman empire (6 B.C.). All the Roman empire was ordered to be registered by province in order to facilitate the payment of taxes. This human decree facilitated the fulfillment of the prophetic word which declared that the Son of David would be born in Bethlehem.

Only a necessity would force an expectant mother to make such a long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, they searched for shelter. The inns were probably full because of all the people who had returned to the city of their ancestors to be registered. For this reason, Joseph and Mary found only a place in a stable among the animals. Thus the Lord of glory was born, not in a palace, but in a very humble location. This humble place was also an indication of the poverty and humble condition of his earthly parents.

The Prince of Peace and the Creator of the universe who came to save his people was born in a manger and died on a cross. Through these humble beginnings, God fulfilled the expectations of the prophets and the hopes of Israel.

NOTE:

My book Divine Violence and the Character of God will be published in January 2022. The book deals with God’s violent acts in the Old Testament in light of God’s character as a gracious and merciful God. You can order a pre-publication copy of the book at 40% discount. If you want to order the book at 40% discount, send an email to drmariottini@gmail.com and put Divine Violence on the subject line and I will send you information on how to order a pre-publication copy of the book at 40% discount. This discount will be available only on pre-publication orders. Once the book is published, the 40% discount will no longer be available.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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