The greatest birth (Matthew 1:18-25)

The birth of Jesus is a great mystery. In fact, it is generally regarded as one of two great mysteries of the Christian faith – they are the mystery of three persons in the Trinity and the mystery of two natures in the person of Christ. Saying that there are two great mysteries does not mean that there are only two because, as we know, there are many mysteries connected to the Christian faith. Nevertheless, the Trinity and the Incarnation are obviously very deep.

The appropriate response to both mysteries is twofold: first, there should be worship and, second, we should try and grow in our understanding of each. The approach must be done in that order – if we try to learn without worship, we will not learn anything of value. It will only be theories, even if we are correct in our explanations. The obvious example of this is the great difference between Herod, who learned nothing of the meaning of the coming of Jesus despite being informed about what the Scriptures had to say about the location of the birth of the Messiah, and the wise men who worshipped the infant Saviour.

The mystery of the Incarnation is made more mysterious because although it was a miracle it was also a humiliation. From one point of view, what had seemed impossible – the coming together of deity and humanity in one person, the Son of God – would have been expected to result in adulation and esteem by those who heard about it, and that this amazing person then would have been given a very pre-eminent place. We know that eventually Jesus would receive the place of honour from the Father at the ascension, but before then it was one stage of humiliation after another.

Having said that it was a mystery, we can also see that the biblical description is very matter-of-fact, which could seem surprising given its importance. We might have wished that Matthew had given more details in his brief account of this incredible event. Instead he begins, ‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.’ Yet we must admit that the Bible is very matter-of-fact in how it describes important events. This is how the week of creation is described in Genesis 1. It is also how the story of the Day of Pentecost is told in Acts 2. And we know it is how the Bible describes the Day of Judgement. The fact is, a real miracle requires no exaggeration. Instead, the policy on such occasions is, Say it as it is. 

Of course, we can also see that Matthew can pack a lot into a sentence. When he wrote, ‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way,’ he is saying, ‘Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.’ Two details of this statement can be pointed out. First, the word translated ‘birth’ is not the usual word for birth. Instead it is a word that points to origins, so it looks as if Matthew is pointing out to his readers that the way Jesus came into the world was different. Second, with regard to him calling Jesus the Messiah, one would expect his readers to say to themselves something like this: ‘All the details of the Messiah are given to us in the Old Testament. What does the Old Testament say about his birth?’

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