As you have been hearing, we are celebrating the coming of the Lord Jesus who came on a rescue mission to save us from our sin and guilt and to reconcile us to God. And to help us think about the Biblical teaching on that point, I want to invite you if you would to take your Bibles in hand and to turn with me to Matthew's gospel, chapter 1. We looked at the first part of chapter 1 last week; we're going to look at the second half of the chapter tonight. Quite often in the run-up to Christmas, you'll hear a good deal about Mary and Elizabeth and Zechariah and shepherds and wise men and angels. And of course, they all have their central part to play in the drama of that first Christmas. And poor old Joseph, Mary's husband, rather tends to get overlooked. And so tonight, we're going to focus on Joseph's story in Matthew chapter 1, verses 18 through 25.
If you cast your eye over it, you might spot one possible reason for the relative neglect of Joseph’s tale. That is, he doesn’t say a word. I suppose he’s not all that different from a lot of husbands in this respect! Most of us have used up our weekly quota of words by Tuesday! There’s not a single word actually recorded from Joseph in the Bible. And yet, in Matthew’s account, he is given a vitally important role right at the beginning of Matthew’s history of the life of Christ. And so we’re going to focus our attention there this evening. So turn your attention please with me to Matthew chapter 1 at the eighteenth verse. Before we read it, let me ask if you wouldn’t mind bowing your heads with me as we pray together. Let’s pray.
Lord our God, we pray now that the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that rested upon Christ in all His fullness, that same Spirit might come to us and through this portion of Your holy Word bring each of us to meet Jesus for ourselves, whether for the first time or anew. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
Matthew’s gospel, chapter 1 at verse 18. This is God’s Word:
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, 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.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’
(which means, God with us). 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.”
Amen, and we give God praise that He has spoken in His holy Word.
It is a sad fact, well known to us all I’m sure, that the word “Christmas” and the word “crisis” often go together. Whether it’s the crisis that results when Christmas dinner is burnt to a crisp or still raw because the oven didn’t go on in time, or whether it’s something more serious – the crisis of heartbreak and loss, of family feuding, of personal regret – whatever it is, crises at Christmastime hurt more somehow, don’t they? Perhaps it’s because we’re constantly being bombarded in the middle of our Christmastime crises with a message that says we’re supposed to be happy all the time. ‘Tis the season, after all. Or maybe it’s because our own expectations have risen to unrealistic heights, and when we fail to meet them we’re heartbroken. Christmas and crisis quite often go together. Isn’t that right?
Interestingly, Joseph’s story also begins with a crisis. If you’ll look at the text with me, you’ll see it immediately. Notice in verse 18 we learn that Mary and Joseph are betrothed; that is, they are engaged. Now, engagement in that culture was much, much more serious and weighty than in ours. In fact, to break off a betrothal requires a divorce, as Matthew himself goes on to make plain in verse 19. And so betrothal in those days really was more like a sort of stage one of a two-stage wedding. Mary and Joseph are in that first stage when it is discovered that Mary is already pregnant. And so now Joseph can't proceed with the wedding. We are told that he is, however, a just man. You see that in the text? He is a just man. The word Matthew uses really is "righteous." He is a righteous man. He orders his life by faith in obedience to God and His Word. And being a righteous man, he's also a compassionate man. He cares deeply for Mary. He doesn't want to bring undue shame upon her. And so instead of a public, legal case, which is an avenue he could have taken, he resolves that the divorce will be a quiet one.
And yet, it’s clear, isn’t it, that erupting into this life, this family, is real heartbreak. It’s not difficult to imagine the hurt and the shock and the anger and the betrayal and a host of other emotions swirling around for Joseph when he first learns the news that Mary, his betrothed, is already pregnant. He’s in crisis at the coming of Jesus Christ. And actually, if you scan through the accounts of Jesus' birth in the Gospel records, you will see that His coming is never recorded as neat and tidy. In each of the accounts of Jesus appearing on the scene of human history, we discover that it is a deeply disruptive thing. Wise men follow stars; politicians descend into a murderous rage. Jesus' own family have to flee for safety and refuge to Egypt. Shepherds abandon their flocks in the middle of the night. The birth of Jesus is not a straightforward story of a newborn entering the world. We sang earlier, “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” It’s a marvelous hymn but it’s not really very true is it? At that point, at least, it was a chaotic, disruptive event and one filled with difficulty and crisis for more than just Jesus’ own family actually. When Jesus comes, you see, He turns things upside down and inside out, as many of us have discovered. That was certainly true for Joseph. The coming of Jesus throws him into crisis.
But notice that he isn't left there, is he? He's not left in the crisis. An angel is sent to Joseph in a dream who shows him where to turn for comfort. So he begins in crisis but he finds comfort in the middle of circumstances that he first thought would hold only heartache and pain for him. Actually we heard in the two stories of rescue from our church members earlier on that actually, very often, it is the very circumstances that generate heartache and pain that God will use and come to us through and train us by that we might find our comfort and our hope in the middle of them all in Him.
And Joseph finds comfort for his heart and he does so in four areas. The angel tells Joseph four things that I want to highlight for us where we might find comfort also. First of all, the angel tells Joseph about the origins of Jesus’ coming. Then he tells him about the plan that Jesus fulfills. Then the identity Jesus bears, and the mission Jesus performs. Okay? That’s where we’re going; that’s our outline. The origins of Jesus’ coming, the plan Jesus fulfills, the identity Jesus bears, and the mission Jesus fulfills.
Origins of Jesus
Let’s think together first of all about the origins of Jesus’ coming. Quite understandably, Joseph is feeling betrayed. He thinks Mary has been unfaithful to him. He can’t see how the marriage can possibly work, and so divorce plans are underway. And then look at verse 20. “As he considered these things,” as he’s making those plans, “behold, 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.’” And now with this one line, Joseph’s distress begins to melt away. Mary has not broken trust after all. There has been no betrayal. Instead of something terrible, something wonderful is taking place. God the Holy Spirit has worked in the womb of the virgin. The Church traditionally speaks of the virgin birth, it’s more accurate really to speak of the virginal conception of Christ, and because of this mysterious work of the Spirit, Joseph need not hesitate to bring Mary home as his wife at last.
Work of the Holy Spirit
Matthew’s actually quite concerned that we notice the role, the work of the Holy Spirit, in all of this. And so he tells us twice over in the passage – first in verse 18 and again in verse 20 – that Mary’s pregnancy originates in the miraculous and mysterious work of the Holy Spirit. It’s actually an emphasis that you will find sustained throughout the Biblical accounts of the life of Christ. At every point throughout His life, again and again, we are told that the Holy Spirit penetrates and suffuses the person and the work of the Lord Jesus, at every turn and at every juncture.
So for example, at His baptism, the Spirit descended and rested upon Him. He is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted. Afterwards, we are told He returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee. At one point after performing miracles, the Gospel writer quotes Isaiah 42 where Jesus is declared to be God's servant with whom He is well pleased, upon whom God has put His Spirit. After sending out the disciples on a mission trip, we are told that He "rejoiced greatly in the Holy Spirit." On the night when He was betrayed, He took His disciples aside and told them He Himself would send them the Holy Spirit to be a Comforter for them like Himself. After His resurrection, He breathed on His disciples and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit." And at Pentecost, having ascended to the throne of heaven, the exalted Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit upon the Church so that the Holy Spirit that dwelt upon and rested upon the Lord Jesus Christ from conception to exaltation is sent by Him to us so that we may have a real living connection to Jesus for ourselves. And so the first word of comfort that Joseph receives is about the origins of Jesus’ coming, which highlights the work of the Holy Spirit. And by the work of the same Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, you, you can know this very Jesus for yourself.
And then secondly, I want you to notice the plan that Jesus fulfills. The origins of Jesus’ coming – the work of the Holy Spirit. Then, the plan that Jesus fulfills. There are really very few words that make me more nervous than the line, “Don’t worry, I have a plan.” If I wasn’t worried before now, now I am! It all depends of course on who is speaking. If my teenage children say that to me I’m pretty nervous. If I say that to you, you probably should be pretty nervous! But when God says it, instead of nerves it really should bring enormous relief. That’s, in effect, what Joseph is being told in our passage. “Don’t worry. This is all going exactly according to plan.”
Fulfillment of Prophecy
You’ll see that if you look at verse 22 for a moment. Verse 22, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name, Immanuel.’” Now there’s a little bit of discussion amongst the scholars as to whether or not the angel said this or whether this is Matthew’s editorial comment at the end of the angel’s speech. In our version, you may notice at the end of verse 21, the speech marks, the quotation marks conclude. The quotation marks are not there in the original and so it’s a judgment call about whether or not the quotation in verses 22 and 23 belong to Matthew or belong to the angel. It really doesn’t matter much either way and I’ll spare you the reasons, but I think on balance it’s best to understand them as the angel’s words.
But what matters here, and we'll come back to what they mean in just a moment, but what matters here, for now, is the use Matthew makes of this quotation from the prophet Isaiah. Chapter 7 verse 14, the prophecy of the birth of this child to the virgin who would be called Immanuel. Actually, this is the first in a series of nine fulfillment passages you’ll find throughout Matthew’s gospel. Nine times, Jesus is expressly said to do something to fulfill what was spoken of by the prophets in the Old Testament scriptures. And the point every single time, here no less than the other eight times, is the same. The point is, Jesus is the one you’ve been waiting for. That’s the message. Jesus is the one the prophets have been speaking about. This is all going exactly according to plan.
You may be here tonight wondering if you really can trust the message about Jesus. Like Joseph in our text perhaps, the idea of a baby conceived by supernatural means is so improbable as to never occur to you. It hadn't occurred to Joseph until the angel came to him that night. How can you know Jesus is who He says He is? And how can you trust His message? Well, let me encourage you to check it out for yourself. Why not start with Matthew's gospel where we're reading tonight. Keep on reading. Maybe you’d consider reading a chunk of the Gospel at a time and talking about it with a friend. If someone is a regular member here who brought you along this evening, you might consider reading through Matthew together and talking about its message. And if you do that, if you work through Matthew’s gospel, do be on the lookout for Matthew’s emphasis, his concern, to show us how Jesus fulfills the ancient prophecies and promises of the Hebrew Scriptures. He’s the one they’ve been waiting for, Matthew is saying. The one the world really needs.
And you’ll discover, if you attend closely to Matthew’s gospel that the whole Bible fits together in a remarkable way with a single, central storyline focused on the coming of this one little baby, born to Mary and Joseph that day and laid in a manger. You might just find what Joseph before you found – that seeing in Jesus, God was keeping His promises, fulfilling His plan, you might just find that fear is displaced at last by faith as you come to trust who Jesus is, who He said He was, and what He came to do for yourself. The origins of Jesus’ coming. The plan that Jesus fulfills.
Then thirdly, notice the identity that Jesus bears. The identity that Jesus bears. Look again at the angel’s citation of that prophecy from Isaiah in verses 22 and 23. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” Matthew’s editorial comment in verse 23 – Immanuel means “God with us.” The child Isaiah promised would be, truly, really human. He would bleed and die, remember. He’s a man. But much more than merely a man, He will be Immanuel; He will be God with us. What is really going on in the Christmas story? What’s it really about? It is about God Himself taking flesh, human nature, and dwelling among us. It’s the story of Immanuel, God with us. Not just God over us reigning as Lord. Not just God for us caring for us, loving us. But God with us, among us as one of us.
Rico Tice, who was here not so long ago, loves to tell the story of being invited to dinner at a very exclusive private club in London. He was standing on the steps outside one day waiting for his hosts to arrive and standing beside him was a man he vaguely recognized. Being English, not Scottish – let me emphasize – being English, of course, the two men did not speak. They just nodded to one another politely and continued standing around in that awkward silence that the English have mastered by centuries of careful cultivation. I think my prejudices are showing! Eventually, a man came around the corner and said, "Ah, William, there you are! We are in the back dining room.” And then it hit him. He’d just been standing around in silence nodding at future king of England; the future king of Britain, I should say. And he didn’t realize who it was standing there the whole time. I wonder if you realize who Jesus really is. Do you have His identity clear? You see, He’s more than just Mary’s boy. He’s the King. He’s the God who made you, come among us as one of us.
And that leads us to the last thing I want you to see in our passage and that’s the mission that Jesus performs. Why in the world would He come among us at all? Why is He God with us? We’re told here that we can connect with Him personally through the Holy Spirit even here tonight. We’re told that He fulfills the promises of the Bible; this is all according to plan. We’re told that He is Himself God and man, bringing deity and humanity together that we might know Him; dwelling among us, come as one of us. But why? Why did He come and why should we connect with Him?
Look back at verse 21 for a moment, would you? Verse 21, Mary, we are told, "will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sin." The name, "Jesus," you may know is a Greek version of the Hebrew name, "Joshua; Yeshua,” which means “God saves.” God saves. The angel is telling Joseph what this is all really about. “God is coming down to be carried in the womb of the virgin and nursed at her breast and trained in your workshop, Joseph. God is coming down as man in Jesus Christ on a rescue mission.” You see, we all need rescuing. I certainly do; so do you. You may not know it, but you do. Our problem isn’t that we are confused and that we need educating, or sick and need healing, or victimized and need justice. We might be any or all of those things, but none of them describe our essential problem. Our problem is that we are guilty in the sight of God. We are sinners. And the good news of the Christmas story is that in Jesus Christ the God to whom we are accountable has Himself come in pursuit of us to be our rescuer from that fundamental problem. That is what Christmas is about. That’s what really makes it worth celebrating. You see, the baby born to Mary and Joseph will live a life we ought to live, but do not and cannot. A life of perfect obedience and submission to God. And die a death we deserve to die; bearing our guilt, our sin upon His shoulders. Being treated as though He were guilty with the guilt of our rebellion so that we might never die, but live through Him. Paul says, “He died the righteous for the unrighteous to bring us to God.” Our sin on His shoulders that His righteousness might be ours. Mary’s baby is called “Jesus” because in Him God Himself came to rescue us from our sin.
Now I rather suspect as you’ve been listening one of three things, possibly four things – the first maybe you’ve fallen asleep and you need a nudge. So if the person sitting next to you is asleep, would you nudge them awake? We’re coming in for a landing now so it’s almost over. One of three things may have happened to you as you’ve been listening. First of all, as you’ve heard the Christmas story, you may have concluded this is just not for you. You’ve heard it, it’s clear, and you’ve rejected it. If that’s you, let me plead with you to take another look. Let me plead with you to take another look. Eternity hands in the balance. Alternatively, it may be you find yourself intrigued. You're not convinced, not yet, but you'd like to learn a bit more. I'm thrilled if that's the case for you. Why not begin to read Jesus' story for yourself. If a friend brought you along, maybe you could read it together and talk about it. You might also like to join a short course where you can ask anything you like about the Christian message, explore who Jesus is and why He came. There's a card you may have received, or you'll find them around the church. On this side of it, you'll see Christianity Explored and Life Explored courses and how you can get connected with one of them as we explore who Jesus is. We'd love it if you'd consider participating in that. Or come after the service later on and join us in Lowe Hall for some refreshments and you can bring your questions and hear more about the Lord Jesus and the way He is rescuing us.
Or in the third place, you may have in fact begun to see that you really do need rescuing after all. Maybe you’ve discovered that the deeper crisis of your life has to do with your sin and your guilt in the sight of Almighty God. You’ve begun maybe even to hear Him calling to you in the message about Jesus, God’s Rescuer. Let me say to you, if that is you, please be assured that Jesus really did come to save you from your sins and you can connect with Him for yourself here tonight through the Holy Spirit. He is just the one that you need. And He is inviting you to put your faith, your trust, in Him. There’s nothing else to do than that. Simply trust in the Lord Jesus to save you, to rescue you, and He will. If it helps you, I’m going to pray in just a moment and you might want to respond to the message about Jesus by praying along with me in your heart. And if you find that Jesus really is at work in your life, would you come and talk to me? I’d love to meet you and hear more about what God is doing and how we can serve you and help you. We want to encourage you as best we can. Let me pray for you. Let’s pray together.
Our Father, we thank You that Jesus came according to plan and that through the Holy Spirit we can know Him for ourselves. We praise You that He is not just Mary’s boy, but He is God the Son, come on a rescue mission, come to save us from our sin. And so we pray for one another. We pray for ourselves. And we ask You please to draw near to us, to take ahold of our hearts, our consciences, and to bring us to a place where we see how deeply we need You. We need the forgiveness that Jesus provides. Bring us to a place where we find ourselves crying out to You for rescue. And if there’s anyone here who seeks You and wants to cry to You, we ask You, Lord, to help them to pray along with me. “Lord Jesus, I am a rebel sinner and guilty in Your sight. Thank You that You came to rescue sinners like me. Would You be my Deliverer even now? Be my King and my Lord. You are the one my heart so urgently needs and I trust You.” We ask all of this in Jesus’ name, amen.
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