THE SAVIOUR’S ENTRY INTO THE WORLD
The birth of Jesus Christ happened in this way. Mary, His mother, was betrothed to Joseph, and, before they became man and wife, it was discovered that she was carrying a child in her womb through the action of the Holy Spirit. Although Joseph, her husband, was a man who kept the law, he did not wish publicly to humiliate her, so he wished to divorce her secretly. When he was planning this, behold, an angel of the Lord came to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David” said the angel, “do not hesitate to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been begotten within her has come from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you must call his name Jesus, for it is he who will save his people from their sins. All this has happened that there might be fulfilled that which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, `Behold, the maiden will conceive and bear a son, and you must call his name Emmanuel, which is translated: God with us’.” So Joseph woke from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him; and he accepted his wife: and he did not know her until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.
To our western ways of thinking the relationships in this passage are very bewildering. First, Joseph is said to be betrothed to Mary; then he is said to be planning quietly to divorce her; and then she is called his wife. But the relationships represent normal Jewish marriage procedure, in which there were three steps.
(i) There was the engagement. The engagement was often made when the couple were only children. It was usually made through the parents, or through a professional match-maker. And it was often made without the couple involved ever having seen each other. Marriage was held to be far too serious a step to be left to the dictates of the human heart.
(ii) There was the betrothal. The betrothal was what we might call the ratification of the engagement into which the couple had previously entered. At this point the engagement, entered into by the parents or the match-maker, could be broken if the girl was unwilling to go on with it. But once the betrothal was entered into, it was absolutely binding. It lasted for one year. During that year the couple were known as man and wife, although they had not the rights of man and wife. It could not be terminated in any other way than by divorce. In the Jewish law we frequently find what is to us a curious phrase. A girl whose fiance had died during the year of betrothal is called “a virgin who is a widow”. It was at this stage that Joseph and Mary were. They were betrothed, and if Joseph wished to end the betrothal, he could do so in no other way than by divorce; and in that year of betrothal Mary was legally known as his wife.
(iii) The third stage was the marriage proper, which took place at the end of the year of betrothal.
If we remember the normal Jewish wedding customs, then the relationships in this passage are perfectly usual and perfectly clear.
So at this stage it was told to Joseph that Mary was to bear a child, that that child had been begotten by the Holy Spirit, and that he must call the child by the name Jesus. Jesus is the Greek form of the Jewish name Joshua, and Joshua means Jehovah is salvation. Long ago the Psalmist had heard God say, “He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities'” (Ps.130:8). And Joseph was told that the child to be born would grow into the Saviour who would save God’s people from their sins. Jesus was not so much The Man born to be King as The Man born to be Saviour. He came to this world, not for his own sake, but for men and for our salvation.
BORN OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
Matt. 1:18-25 (continued)
This passage tells us how Jesus was born by the action of the Holy Spirit. It tells us of what we call the Virgin Birth. This is a doctrine which presents us with many difficulties; and our Church does not compel us to accept it in the literal and the physical sense. This is one of the doctrines on which the Church says that we have full liberty to come to our own conclusion. At the moment we are concerned only to find out what this means for us.
If we come to this passage with fresh eyes, and read it as if we were reading it for the first time, we will find that what it stresses is not so much that Jesus was born of a woman who was a virgin, as that the birth of Jesus is the work of the Holy Spirit. “Mary was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.” “That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” It is as if these sentences were underlined, and printed large. That is what Matthew wishes to say to us in this passage. What then does it mean to say that in the birth of Jesus the Holy Spirit of God was specially operative? Let us leave aside all the doubtful and debatable things, and concentrate on that great truth, as Matthew would wish us to do.
In Jewish thought the Holy Spirit had certain very definite functions. We cannot bring to this passage the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit in all its fullness, because Joseph would know nothing about that. We must interpret it in the light of the Jewish idea of the Holy Spirit, for it is that idea that Joseph would inevitably bring to this message, for that was all he knew.
(i) According to the Jewish idea, the Holy Spirit was the person who brought God’s truth to men. It was the Holy Spirit who taught the prophets what to say; it was the Holy Spirit who taught men of God what to do; it was the Holy Spirit who, throughout the ages and the generations, brought God’s truth to men. So then, Jesus is the one person who brings God’s truth to men.
Let us put it in another way. Jesus is the one person who can tell us what God is like, add what God means us to be. In him alone we see what God is and what man ought to be. Before Jesus came men had only vague and shadowy, and often quite wrong, ideas about God; they could only at best guess and grope; but Jesus could say, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn.14:9). In Jesus we see the love, the compassion, the mercy, the seeking heart, the purity of God as nowhere else in all this world. With the coming of Jesus the time of guessing is gone, and the time of certainty is come. Before Jesus came men did not really know what goodness was. In Jesus alone we see true manhood, true goodness, true obedience to the will of God. Jesus came to tell us the truth about God and the truth about ourselves.
(ii) The Jews believed that the Holy Spirit not only brought God’s truth to men, but also enabled men to recognize that truth when they saw ii. So then Jesus opens men’s eyes to the truth. Men are blinded by their own ignorance; they are led astray by their own prejudices; their minds and eyes are darkened by their own sins and their own passions. Jesus can open our eyes until we are able to see the truth.
In one of William J. Locke’s novels there is a picture of a woman who has any amount of money, and who has spent half a lifetime on a tour of the sights and picture galleries of the world. She is weary and bored. Then she meets a Frenchman who has little of this world’s goods, but who has a wide knowledge and a great love of beauty. He comes with her, and in his company things are completely different. “I never knew what things were like,” she said to him, “until you taught me how to look at them.”
Life is quite different when Jesus teaches us how to look at things. When Jesus comes into our hearts, he opens our eyes to see things truly.
CREATION AND RE-CREATION
Matt. 1:18-25 (continued)
(iii) The Jews specially connected the Spirit of God with the work of creation. It was through his Spirit that God performed his creating work. In the beginning the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters and chaos became a world (Gen.1:2). “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,” said the Psalmist, “and all their host by the breath of his mouth” (Ps.33:6). (Both in Hebrew: HSN7307 – ruwach, and in Greek: GSN4151 – pneuma, the word for breath and spirit is the same word.) “When thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created” (Ps.104:30). “The Spirit of God has made me,” said Job, “and the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (Jb.33:4).
The Spirit is the Creator of the World and the Giver of Life. So, then, in Jesus there came into the world God’s life-giving and creating power. That power, which reduced the primal chaos to order, is come to bring order to our disordered life. That power, which breathed life into that in which there was no life, is come to breathe life into our weaknesses and frustrations. We could put it this way–we are not really alive until Jesus enters into our lives.
(iv) The Jews specially connected the Spirit, not only with the work of creation, but with the work of re-creation. Ezekiel draws his grim picture of the valley of dry bones. He goes on to tell how the dry bones came alive; and then he hears God say, “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live” (Eze.37:1-14). The Rabbis had a saying, “God said to Israel: `In this world my Spirit has put wisdom in you, but in the future my Spirit will make you to live again’.” When men are dead in sin and in lethargy, it is the Spirit of God which can waken them to life anew.
So then, in Jesus there came to this world the power which can re-create life. He can bring to life again the soul which is dead in sin; he can revive again the ideals which have died; he can make strong again the will to goodness which has perished. He can renew life, when men have lost all that life means.
There is much more in this chapter than the crude fact that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin mother. The essence of Matthew’s story is that in the birth of Jesus the Spirit of God was operative as never before in this world. It is the Spirit who brings God’s truth to men; it is the Spirit who enables men to recognize that truth when they see it; it is the Spirit who was God’s agent in the creation of the world; it is the Spirit who alone can re-create the human soul when it has lost the life it ought to have.
Jesus enables us to see what God is and what man ought to be; Jesus opens the eyes of our minds so that we can see the truth of God for us; Jesus is the creating power come amongst men; Jesus is the re-creating power which can release the souls of men from the death of sin.
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