13 January, 2009

Joseph and the Prophecy of Immanuel (Matt. 1:18-25)

When the great promise of God came to David, he must have been sorely perplexed by what seemed to be an inherent contradiction in it: “I will set up thy seed after thee which shall proceed out of thy bowels... I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son” (2 Sam. 7:12-14). The two sections of Matthew 1 resolve this in a way David could hardly have foreseen. The genealogy established descent from David. The rest of the chapter shews how Messiah is also, quite literally, Son of God.

Mary’s husband-to-be was a poor man. This can be readily inferred from the kind of offering that was made when the baby Jesus was presented before the Lord in the temple (Lk. 2:24; Lev. 12:8). Probably, too, it was a struggle for a livelihood which had taken him, or an earlier generation, to Nazareth, for it may be taken as fairly certain that, if possible, the heirs to the throne of David would remain in Bethlehem, David’s city.

It is not clear how Joseph came to know that Mary was pregnant. One guesses that it was disclosed to him by her mother after her return from the home of Elisabeth-”she was found with child” (v.18). Here was an unpleasant problem to resolve. Joseph was a good man, and not merely “just” in the technical Law-of-Moses sense of being one who faithfully observed all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord. This may be taken as certain, for was he not chosen by God to represent to Jesus in his earliest formative years the meaning of the word “Father”?

He had to make up his mind whether or not he should “put her away”, that is, divorce her, for, unlike a modern engagement, among the Jews this betrothal reckoned as a legal tie between man and woman. “From the moment of betrothal a woman was treated as actually married. The union could not be dissolved except by regular divorce; breach of faithfulness was regarded as adultery, and the property of the woman became virtually that of her betrothed” (Edersheim). It is for this reason that he is referred to as “her husband”, and she as “thy wife” (Mt. 1:19,20). Indeed, it did often happen that without any formal marriage ceremony the two came together as man and wife, the betrothal being regarded as the marriage. This was the way it worked out with Joseph and Mary, as the record proceeds to shew (v. 24).

With great delicacy the record leaves a lot of questions unanswered. When did Joseph learn of Mary’s condition? Did she explain to him? If she did, was he able to believe it? In any case, why was he unwilling to continue their marriage (consider Hosea 3:1-3)?

It would seem that Joseph had decided on what today would be called a separation-a quite remarkable decision, committing him (most probably) to continue unmarried for life, and also bringing to an end his branch of the family of David. This to save Mary from being “a public example”. The alternative would be the quietest form of divorce allowed by the rabbis- before two witnesses only.

Help from Heaven

However, Joseph was not given to precipitate action. He had come to his decision, but was still turning over in his mind how best, for Mary’s good, he should implement it, when there came a revelation from heaven (Gabriel again, surely). And this put the whole thing in a completely different light.

“Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” How reassuring this would be to his troubled mind, for he feared offending his God and he feared public opinion. This latter would be an important consideration, for Joseph would have in mind his position as heir to the throne of David. Hence the angel’s first words: ‘‘Fear not...”

The child to be born was not to be Joseph’s son (contrast Gabriel’s words to Zacharias: “Thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son”); nevertheless he was to be acknowledged as though Joseph’s own: “Thou shalt call his name Jesus.” and thus it came about in later years that the ordinary people knew Jesus as the son of the carpenter in Nazareth (Lk. 2:48; 4:22; Jn.6: 42).

The next words of the angel lifted the soul of Joseph from wretchedness and perplexity to a level of profound spiritual exaltation: “He shall save his people from their sins.” In the text the emphatic pronoun seems to imply: ‘he, and no one else, shall do this’. Time after time in ancient days God had raised up a saviour for Israel (Judges 3:9), but these were men who fought and routed physical enemies and saved the kingdom of the Lord from invasion and oppression. But the Scriptures foretold God’s provision of a greater Saviour: “He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities” (Ps. 130:8); and “not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles; as he saith in Hosea, I will call them my people, which were not my people” (Rom. 9:24,25). The use of “people” (loos) in these passages points to a New Israel dependent not on circumcision but on Baptism and the Breaking of Bread “for the remission of sins” in Christ (Acts 2:38; Mt.26:28). The use of the pronoun in “Immanuel” confirms this. In the prototype “us” meant the faithful remnant, the true Israel: “Unto us a child is born” (Is. 8:10; 9:6). Now it means the New Israel, including believing Gentiles (Mt. 28:19).

The Immanuel Prophecy

These wonderful truths, very concisely put in Matthew’s record, were no doubt explained at greater length by the angel, it is more than likely that Isaiah’s famous prophecy about the birth of the Messiah was quoted by him. But in any case, on waking, the mind of a devout man like Joseph would quickly recall, with fuller understanding, that “which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” There is so much, both of importance and difficulty, attaching to this Scripture that it would not be amiss to spend some time considering it.

A careful reading of Isaiah 7 makes it fairly evident that the prophecy, like so many other Messianic prophecies, had a primary reference to Isaiah’s own day. Ahaz, king of Judah, was making frantic preparations to stave off an invasion by the confederate kings of Syria and Israel. “If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established”, reproved the prophet, making effective play on the sound of the Hebrew phrases: “No belief, no relief!” Then, as always, deliverance could only be on the basis of one abiding God-honouring principle: Salvation by faith.

So the king was encouraged to ask for a sign concerning the Messiah, the point being that if God renewed His promise of a king who should sit on David’s throne, reigning for ever, no imminent overthrow of the kingdom need be feared.

“Ask in the depth, or in the height above.” There are three different ways of interpreting this enigmatic expression:

  • It is an idiom for the Messiah, who is to be of human and divine origin (2 Sam. 7:12,14; Gen. 49:25; Prov. 30:4; Deut. 30:12; 33:13; Is. 45:8; Gen. 27:28; 22:17; Zech. 8:12).
  • Ask a sign from Isaiah, a prophet living in “the valley of vision” (Kidron valley) — “the depth”; or ask a sign of divine manifestation in the temple, “the height”.
  • Allusion to a spring of water originating in the temple area, close to the place of sacrifice, and flowing out via the Virgin’s Fountain to En Rogel where the kings were crowned.
After his public desecration of the temple of Israel, Ahaz was not prepared to make a public recantation. “I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord”, said he hypocritically. But a sign was given nevertheless: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (7:14).

A good deal of argument has taken place about this Hebrew word almah. Does it mean “virgin”, or merely “a young woman of marriageable age”? All the other occurrences of this word seem to require the former meaning. Also, it is very remarkable that the Septuagint translators, doing their work long after the time of Isaiah and also long before the time of Jesus, chose to translate it by a Greek word which certainly means “virgin”. Over against this is the interesting fact that the versions of the Old Testament in Greek made by Aquila, Theodotion, and Symmachus all read “young woman”. But these translators were all Jews or Jewish proselytes after the time of Christ, so they all had a large doctrinal axe to grind!

It is suggested here that in the first instance Isaiah alluded to the young queen elect of king Ahaz, actually present with him when the words were heard. The child who was born in due time was Hezekiah, who deserved the name “God is with us” more than any other king since David (2 Kgs. 18:7; 2 Chr. 32:8). Hezekiah is almost certainly the basis of the other outstanding Messiah prophecies in Isaiah—with great appropriateness since in so many remarkable details he was a most impressive type of Christ. Most probably, when Isaiah was making his prophecies concerning Hezekiah, he knew that he spoke also about the Messiah.

Here, as happens with so many other prophecies of the Old Testament, the proximate fulfilment matched the words only approximately (the words “virgin” and “Immanuel” especially!), whilst the application to Christ is exact. (In the rest of Isaiah the reverse appears to be the case.)

Variations in the Text

There are certain interesting variations in the different versions of this passage. The Hebrew text has: “she shall call his name Immanuel”, which implies a contravention of the normal Jewish usage that the father decided the name of the child! This supports the idea that Isaiah’s prophecy intended a reference to a virgin, there being no human father to pronounce the child’s name. At the same time, the true father of this divine child did assign the name in the pronouncements made by the angel separately to Mary and to Joseph, and more publicly later at his baptism.

When Matthew quotes the prophecy he makes a deliberate variation: “and they shall call his name Immanuel.” Fairly evidently the allusion here is to the “us” in the Immanuel name, those who depend on this God-given Saviour for help which can come from no other.

With what gladness do they hail him as Immanuel. Perhaps also Matthew intends his readers to see the mother of the child as a type of the faithful remnant rejoicing in Immanuel, whilst Ahaz is a figure of the faithless nation which has constantly tempted the Lord their God by an unbelief and self-dependence bringing them no lasting peace.

All this, Matthew is also careful to stress, was “in order that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet”. But of course the main intention behind the Virgin Birth was not simply to provide a striking fulfilment of prophecy. Here the great redeeming Purpose of God was taking an impressive step forward. Matthew’s “in order that” is only his way of emphasizing this important truth.

Prompt Obedience

Joseph, faced with the problem of his wife’s pregnancy, had been cautious, considerate, and unhurried. But once he knew the mind of God on this, as revealed by the angel and confirmed by Holy Scripture, in glad relief he lost no time in giving ready obedience: “Being raised from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord had bidden” (cp. 2:14,21)-and what a relief this must have been to Mary! Even God provides things honest in the sight of all men! That immediate response by Joseph invites comparison with the prompt obedience of Abraham who “rose up early in the morning” and set out without delay for mount Moriah and the offering up of his only son (Gen. 22:3).

In this experience of Joseph is exemplified the power of Christ (even before he was born) to win men from doubt to faith. John the Baptist, bewildered and uncertain in prison, the two crucified malefactors, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, the twelve (Peter especially) constantly swithering between loyalty and puzzled uncertainty-these are other examples recorded to illustrate to men who will read about him how Christ has the power to lift them out of their chronic weakness of doubt into the satisfying confidence of faith.

The Brothers of Jesus

Matthew reverently adds a further significant fact to what he has already told. Joseph, quietly but unhesitatingly receiving Mary as his wife, “knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son.” The problem of the parentage of the other children in the family of Joseph - there were four brothers and at least three sisters (Mt. 13:55,56) has often been discussed. There are two possibilities: either they were the children of Joseph by an earlier marriage, or they were Mary’s children, born after Jesus.

The first of these, conjectured out of a mistaken reverence for Mary, is to be rejected, not because it is the standard Roman Catholic interpretation, but because there is no Bible evidence in support of it. On the other hand several arguments seem to require acceptance of the alternative view.

1. The word “until” in the passage just quoted seems to imply pointedly a normal married life after Jesus was born. However this by itself could hardly be regarded as decisive, for in the Bible “until” does not always carry this implication. But there is also the word “firstborn” which would be altogether pointless if Mary had no other children. (See the strong implication behind “firstborn” in Col. 1:18; Rom. 8:29). The usual rejoinder here is that the Vatican manuscript and several fourth-century fathers omit “firstborn”. This evidence can hardly be regarded as satisfactory, for Codex B is often guilty of unwarranted omissions in its text of the gospels. And these “fathers” all belonged to a period when an excessive reverence for Mary and reprobation of a normal sex life were dominating the church.

2. The Greek imperfect tense in “knew her not” would be quite inappropriate if the Catholic view is correct. It would need to be aorist.

3. If the rest of the family were Joseph’s children by an earlier marriage, then the genealogy of Matthew 1 should end with James, and not with Jesus, for Joseph’s firstborn would be the one who then had the right to the throne of David. ,

4. The Greek text of Matthew 12:46 clearly implies the reading: “his mother-and-brethren.”

5. For those who accept Psalm 69 (and not just a few verses of it), as Messianic, verse 8 there is decisive: “I am become a stranger unto my’ brethren, and an alien unto my mother’s children.”

It is perhaps worthwhile at this point to consider how carefully and suitably this beginning of Mary’s family was planned by divine wisdom. Suppose, for example, she had been betrothed to no-one or that conception had taken place before her betrothal to Joseph. Then what provocation there would have been! not only for gossip but also for the sanctions of the Law of Moses to operate? Or, if conception had taken place after marriage, then the child would certainly be assumed to be Joseph’s, and no evidence available to the contrary. Again, suppose Mary betrothed to a man not of the line of David, then his putative son Jesus would have no legal right to the throne of David.

Thus, from every angle, there was divine imperative and divine contrivance about the birth of Jesus, the Son of God. “All this was done in order that (the prophecy) might be fulfilled.” “It behoved the Christ” (Lk. 24:46) to fulfil all of this prophecy — a virgin pregnant, a male child, his name, and its meaning.

-- Harry Whittaker, Studies in the Gospels