The Birth of Jesus—Part 1
By Peter Amsterdam
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The story of Jesus’ life begins with the story of His birth, as told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The Old Testament foretold His coming, revealing specific information about the Messiah, the Savior who was promised by God. He would be born in Bethlehem,1 come from the tribe of Judah,2 and be heir of David’s throne,3 whose throne would be eternal,4 along with numerous other ancient prophecies about His life and death. Within the Gospels we find the fulfillment of the Old Testament predictions regarding Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, which brought salvation to the world.
Matthew begins his gospel with an abbreviated genealogy to show that Jesus fulfilled the genealogical requirements to be the promised Messiah. He begins with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, and includes the patriarchs, thus stressing the Jewishness of Jesus. When he lists David, he refers to him as King David, making the point that Jesus, through the Davidic line, had royal blood and could be rightfully and legally called “King of the Jews.”5 He carries on through the generations of descendants and ends with Joseph, who was the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Luke also includes a genealogy in his gospel, though instead of tracing Jesus’ line only as far back as Abraham, as Matthew does, he traces it back to the first man—Adam—and from there to God Himself. His genealogy doesn’t precede the story of Jesus’ birth as Matthew’s does, but rather is placed right after the account of Jesus’ baptism.6
When writing their accounts of Jesus’ birth, Matthew and Luke present different aspects and include different events, while at the same time they cover much of the same ground and make the same significant points. Matthew tells the story with a focus on Joseph and his role, while Luke’s account focuses on Mary’s role, telling the story from her perspective.
From Matthew’s account we learn that Joseph was a “good” or “righteous” man, meaning that he was an observant Jew who kept the laws of God. He was betrothed to a young woman named Mary who “before they came together … was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”7 In first-century Palestine, betrothal was a period of engagement preceding marriage. Mary, as betrothed to Joseph, was considered his wife, though they had only fulfilled the first step of the marriage process and they hadn’t yet started living together. Yet before they took the second step, Mary became pregnant.
Matthew tells us that Mary’s pregnancy is from the Holy Spirit, but doesn’t give any details of the event. Luke, on the other hand, gives a more detailed account by telling us that the angel Gabriel was sent to Nazareth “to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.”8Gabriel tells Mary that she has found favor with God, and “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”9
Mary asks how this will happen, as she’s a virgin, and the angel answers: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”10 Mary, probably still in her early teens, asks the obvious question of how she will bear a child when she is only betrothed and hasn’t yet had sexual relations with her husband-to-be. The angel’s response is that the pregnancy would be caused by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.
This conception is like no other throughout time. Mary becomes pregnant through a creative act of God. We are not told exactly how this creative act occurred any more than we are told the details of how God created the world, other than that He spoke it and made it so.
Mary gives her consent when she says, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”11 Fulton Sheen beautifully describes the situation like this:
What is called the Annunciation was actually God asking the free consent of a creature to help Him to be incorporated into humanity. …. What He did, therefore, was to ask a woman, representing humanity, freely to give Him a human nature with which He would start a new humanity. As there was an old humanity in Adam, so there would be a new humanity in Christ, Who was God made man through the free agency of a human mother.12
The angel gives Mary a sign that these things are so; he tells her that Elizabeth, her elderly relative, has also conceived a son. Luke tells us that “Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah” to visit Elizabeth who, though past child-bearing age, had also miraculously conceived a son.13 After staying with Elizabeth for approximately three months, Mary returns home to Nazareth three months pregnant.
Upon her return, she is faced with the obvious problem that she is pregnant and Joseph knows that he isn’t the father. Matthew makes it clear that Mary and Joseph haven’t been together prior to Mary’s pregnancy when he writes “before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”14 Realizing that Mary is pregnant, and knowing that the child isn’t his, we can only imagine the hurt, pain, sadness, betrayal, and anger that Joseph must have felt as he “considered these things.”15
Mary, his bride-to-be, has in his mind committed adultery. The Mosaic law states that she can be stoned to death for this.16 But Joseph, “unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”17 Some translations render it as “to put her away” or “send her away secretly.”
It wasn’t possible to have a totally secret divorce, as the writ or certificate of divorce had to be delivered by the husband to the wife before two witnesses, and no matter what reason Joseph would have given for the divorce, everyone would have concluded that adultery was the real reason. By saying Joseph resolved to divorce her quietly, Matthew may have meant that Joseph wasn’t going to publicly accuse Mary of adultery. For Joseph, a righteous man who kept the laws of God, divorcing Mary is the right thing to do. He’s going to be merciful about it, as he doesn’t plan to give adultery as the reason, but he does plan to divorce her in alignment with the law.
We’re then told that an angel of the Lord “appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”18
The message given to him in the dream put an end to thoughts of divorce and the concern about his going against the Mosaic law by marrying Mary. The angel tells him that the child is from the Holy Spirit, and therefore he doesn’t need to fear that he will be breaking God’s law by marrying her, as no adultery was committed. Joseph understands and follows this direction.
Joseph then fulfills the second step of marriage by taking Mary into his home as his wife, thus assuming responsibility for Mary and the child who is to be born. After the birth, Joseph names the child Jesus, as he was commanded to by the angel. By naming the child, Joseph acknowledges his wife’s child as his legitimate son and thus becomes the legal father of Jesus.
It was most likely known in Nazareth that Mary had been pregnant with Jesus before she was living with Joseph, as the child would have been born much less than nine months after Mary had moved in with Joseph. We aren’t told specifically what the attitude of the people of Nazareth was toward Mary and Jesus, but perhaps we catch a slight glimpse of it later in Jesus’ life when some of the Jews seem to be mocking Him by saying, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.”19
Matthew and Luke’s Gospels speak of Mary conceiving without human agency, but rather through an act of the Holy Spirit. Mary and Joseph both had to make choices of faith. For Mary, it was a choice to believe what the angel told her and to accept the commission to be the mother of the Messiah, God’s only begotten Son. For Joseph, it was a choice to believe what the angel told him in the dream, that the child was from the Holy Spirit, that this was God’s doing. Both Mary and Joseph showed their love for and trust in God through their decisions. They were people of faith, and clearly the right ones to raise Jesus.
Originally published December 2014. Adapted and republished December 2021.
Read by John Laurence.
1 Micah 5:2.
2 Genesis 49:10.
3 2 Samuel 7:12–13.
4 Daniel 2:44.
5 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1992), 24.
6 Luke 3:22.
7 Matthew 1:18.
8 Luke 1:27.
9 Luke 1:31–33.
10 Luke 1:35.
11 Luke 1:38.
12 Fulton J. Sheen, Life of Christ (New York: Doubleday, 1958), 9–10.
13 Luke 1:39.
14 Matthew 1:18.
15 Matthew 1:20.
16 Deuteronomy 22:20–21.
17 Matthew 1:19.
18 Matthew 1:20–21, 24–25.
19 John 8:41.