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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

The Virgin will Conceive


“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).” Matthew 1:22-23

My aim this morning is to show you that the Mary and Joseph Christmas story is not merely a coloured wrapper amongst coloured wrappers in the Quality Street assortment of Christmas traditions we are so fond of, but it is absolutely essential to the truth about the real meaning of Advent.

The reason that’s my focus is that I see that we are living at a time when there really is very little distinction being made about what is tradition and what is truth; what is crucial and central, and what is myth and make-belief.

For Christmas to have any value for us, we need to be able to tell the difference. We need to major on the truth and not on minor trinkets. Which is hard, because the thrust of the secular culture we live in is to major on the trinkets. But the trinkets - the tree, the food, the decorations - whilst they give us some momentary pleasure, they have no significant power to change our lives for ever. But the real truth in Christmas does.

Christmas messages take the truth about Christmas and thrust it back into the lime-light (where it should be) and seek to cut through the saccharine seduction of secular Advent.

I want to show you from Matthew that there are uniquely significant things going on in the real Advent that have genuine power to shape our eternal existences.

What I want to do this morning is take a walk through the text because it will help us to see where the emphasis of Matthew’s inspired commentary falls in the account. And then to see the reality Matthew is pointing us to.

In verse 18 we’re told, the account as it follows, is going to be an account of how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about. And straight away that’s a tip-off to us that the birth of ‘Jesus the Messiah’ is not an ordinary one. It’s not usual to be given an account of how a child was conceived. We know how the biology of conception works. And yet here Matthew gives us one.

And, Matthew’s account is of ‘Jesus the Messiah’ which is an unusual title. Messiah means ‘promised deliverer’. In other words, the designation ‘Messiah’ means that the child Jesus, in Matthew’s mind, is the fulfilment of a promise or prophecy of a deliverer, and there, in that promise, is the expectation is that the child to be born will fulfil that role – he will set people free.

Still in verse 18, ‘Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph’. ‘Pledged to be married’ sounds like an engagement, but in the ancient world, the marriage-pledge carried legal implications. It was more binding than our word ‘engagement’ implies.

To extract oneself from a marriage pledge required some legal process which is unfortunate for Joseph, because, ‘before they came together[that is before they had sexual relations] Mary was found to be pregnant’.

In our modern culture, with its low-grade estimation of marriage, there is virtually zero stigma attached to a pre-marital pregnancy. It wasn’t so for Mary and Joseph. To be pregnant before marriage was a disgrace both for him and for her. The ESV study Bible comments that, pregnancy before marriage would have almost always resulted in divorce – the legal process for breaking the engagement off. And for the woman the prospects of marriage after a pre-martial pregnancy would have been very remote.

However, Matthew inserts some radical information – and it really is radical. He doesn’t just tell us Mary was pregnant, even though she hadn’t had sex with Joseph, he tells us how she was pregnant. He tells us she was pregnant through, or by, the Holy Spirit.

That means, that she was pregnant without the presence of male seed, but was pregnant by the miraculous, powerful intervention of the Holy Spirit of God. That’s unique.

Never in the history of the world, before or since, was there the conception of a child in this manner. This was a one-of-a-kind type of conception which would lead to the birth of a one-of-a-kind type of child – the promised messiah.

In verse 19, Matthew shows us how it looks from Joseph’s point of view, because he doesn’t have the information we have. To him the most likely explanation for Mary’s pregnancy is fornication – not adultery, they’re not married yet. Casual sex with another man – that’s what this looks like to Joseph. Which prompts in him two responses.

The first is to act in accordance with the law and the second is to treat her very tenderly.

Verse 19, ‘Because Joseph, her husband [that means her ‘betrothed’] was faithful to the law [he upheld the law – he did what was right], and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace [he could have done so - easily], he had in mind to divorce her quietly [or secretly]’. So, Joseph was a righteous man, he wasn’t going to do anything wrong by putting away the betrothed woman – that was what was right by the law it seems. But he was an honourable man also. He cared about Mary’s welfare. The best thing for his reputation would have been to call Mary out in public and make it really clear he had had nothing to do with this pregnancy – this was some other man’s doing.

But he didn’t do that because he was an honourable man. So, he decided to do this divorce quietly so as to bring as little shame on her as possible. Which sounds like a righteous thing to do.

But, of course he had it wrong. Mary wasn’t, in fact, a promiscuous woman at all – she was faithful to Joseph and she was chosen by God for a unique role – to bear the Messiah, conceived in her by the Holy Spirit of God.

Verse 20, ‘After he’d considered this [namely to divorce Mary quietly] an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream [another unusual event] and said, “Joseph son of David’. Now why use his full title? The answer is, we need to be in no doubt that Jesus’ earthly father – whom everybody encountering the boy Jesus would have recognised as his father – was of the line of the ancient king David. That’s massively significant because the promised Messiah was prophesied to come from the line of King of David.

Isaiah 9, verse 7 speaking of the Messiah says, ‘Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom…’.

So, it’s important that his claim to be the Messiah, to those who had no concept of him being conceived of the Holy Spirit, should have no reason to doubt his earthly lineage.

Joseph son of David don’t be afraid to take Mary home as your wife’. Joseph has every reason to be afraid. Everyone would think he’d got Mary pregnant before they were married. ‘But no Joseph, don’t be afraid, ‘because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’.

‘Mary hasn’t been sleeping around, she’s been faithful and she has been chosen, to carry a unique child through a unique conception’.

Notice, and this is very important, the first time we heard that the baby had been conceived by the Holy Spirit was in Matthew’s commentary in verse 18. If we want to know where he got that idea from, we need look no further than here in verse 20. By declaration of an angel from heaven itself – sent by God Himself - Matthew knows that Jesus was not conceived by normal human means, but by a miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit in Mary’s body.

‘Not only should you not be afraid, Joseph, to take her home as your wife, but when she gives birth to a son, ‘you are to give him the name Jesus [which means ‘Saviour’] because he will save his people from their sins’. In Messiah language we could say, ‘he will ‘deliver’ his people from the consequence of their sin which is death’. Jesus’ name means what he was destined to do. His name means the purpose for which he came into the world. The name Joseph is to give the boy when he’s born is prophetic of his work and his accomplishment.

Which, is why in verse 22, Matthew makes this sweeping statement. ‘All this took place [everything we’ve just read took place] to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet [Isaiah]: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means God with us”)’.

700 years before these events, Isaiah, moved by the Spirit of God, prophesied about a virgin – a woman who had never had sex – being found pregnant with a child whose name would mean ‘God with us’.

And Matthew sees Mary’s pregnancy and the angelic command to Joseph to call the child ‘Jesus - Saviour’ as the fulfilment of that prophecy that spoke of a virgin-born child who was to be called ‘Immanuel - God with us’. In Matthew’s mind these are the same thing. Jesus is God with us.

And Matthew did not write this on his own. He was moved along by the Holy Spirit of God to write this. And so, we can be sure that he is right – Jesus’ birth really is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, and he really is God with us.

Verse 24, ‘When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife’. This is real faith in action on Joseph’s part. Self-preservation tells you to do the opposite of what the angel has said.

But, Joseph is a righteous man, he does as he’s told because the Lord’s commands are all good – even when they look like they’re going to result in hardship – they are all good for us. Joseph, loves Mary and he loves God, and he obeys the command he’s been given.

Finally, verse 25, ‘he did not consummate [with sexual relations] their marriage until she had given birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus’. Why does Matthew mention that Joseph didn’t consummate their marriage until after Mary gave birth?

There’s nothing that I can find that would have prevented him from consummating their marriage. And why does Matthew even mention it at all? I think he mentions it to underline, yet again, this child was not conceived by a human being. Neither Joseph, nor any other man got Mary pregnant. She was the first and only pregnant virgin, ever; like Isaiah had prophesied.

It would seem Matthew is obsessed in these verses with pointing out the virgin-conception of Jesus.

It’s like he’s saying: ‘I could start my account by telling you that a healthy baby boy was born and his name was Jesus, but that would miss something too important not to tell.

So, I’m going to tell you how his birth came about. I’m going to tell you, not once but twice, that it wasn’t a man that made that baby, it was the Holy Spirit of God. I’m going to tell you that God not only planned it ahead of time, but declared it ahead of time by saying ‘the virgin will conceive’. That’s not ordinary.

And I will round it off by telling you that even when Joseph could have had sex with Mary – as his wife – he refrained, and that proves that Jesus was not conceived by a man’.

So why the obsession? Answering that question will take us to where Matthew is in his mind when he writes this emphasis into his account.

Normal sexual relations between a man and a woman produce normal human beings – that’s obvious. And what I mean by normal human beings is what King David means in Psalm 51:5 when he says, ‘Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me’.

Sinners give birth to sinners – that is the natural law of humanity, ever since the fall of mankind in the garden of Eden at the beginning. But this baby, according to the angel in verse 21 was to receive a name that means ‘he will save his people from their sins’.

Now there would be a moral conundrum at the heart of the good news about Jesus if we were to be expected to believe that a sinner could save fellow sinners from their sins. That won’t work.

Can you imagine if the judge who pronounced a person accused of murder innocent were discovered to be a murderer themselves. That wouldn’t work. We would all see the moral inconsistency in that. So it is with Jesus and us.

Our sins are our big problem. Jesus, whose name means ‘he will save them from their sins’ can only perform what his name means, if he himself is sinless. A sinless person could take away the sins of a sinner, but a sinner could never.

So, we are sinners and we need a sinless saviour. How will that sinless saviour remove our sins? Romans 4:25 says it as clearly as anywhere: ‘He [that is Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins’.

‘So, Jesus had to die to deal with our sins?’ Yes.

And if he had to die, then he had to have a body. He had to take on human flesh. Romans 3:25, ‘God presented Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement [on our behalf] through the shedding of his blood’. Our sins get removed by them being attributed to Jesus’ sinless account, and by him bearing the punishment of our death, for them, from God, in our place. That is the gospel – the good news of salvation in Jesus.

So, Jesus’ conception unites the humanity of Mary with the sinlessness of the Holy Spirit, and brings forth a baby who is a sinless human being. That makes him morally fit to save sinners from their sins.

But, that is not enough to achieve the goal of Jesus’ birth. The goal is not only to remove the sins of his people but to conquer death also. Any human being can die for another, but not one single one can raise themselves back to life and conquer death.

Any Deliverer-Messiah who would be for our eternal benefit would not only need to be able to bear our sin for us, but would also need to be able to raise himself and us, with power, from the dead, and so defeat death.

A human conception gives birth to a mere human baby. And a mere human baby has no power over death. Which is why this baby had to be conceived by the Holy Spirit. Only a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit could have the qualities to triumph over death.

And we may well ask what are those qualities? They are none other than the qualities of Godness.

Jesus as Sin-bearer and Deliverer requires more than a perfect man, it requires a perfect God-man. To put it in the words of Isaiah the prophet in verse 23 of our text ‘God with us’. It requires a baby who is really God in the flesh, both perfect to save and powerful to deliver. And that takes nothing less than a miraculous conception by the third person of the Holy Trinity.

So, now we see what Matthew is driving at. He is underlining, repeatedly, the fact of the unique conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit. He’s underlining it repeatedly, not to win a debate, but to show that without it there is no gospel.

The virgin conception by the Holy Spirit is so foundational that its denial means there is not a single hope for any of us. Without it, Jesus is just a sinful human-being, powerless in the face of both sin and death.

But, by that unique, once-for-all conception through the Holy Spirit, Jesus is actually the sinless saviour and powerful deliverer-messiah who did in-fact live a sinless life, qualifying him to be a perfect atoning sacrifice for his people, which he was by his death on the cross and the shedding of his blood for the remission of the sins of all those who trust in him.

And - underscore ‘and’ - he is the powerful God-deliverer who raised himself from the dead so that death had no hold over him, nor can it have a hold over his blood-bought people.

The virgin birth therefore is not marginal, it is central and fundamental to the gospel, and I hope we all believe it without one iota of doubt, because it is very very good news. Without the virgin-birth there is no gospel. Matthew has reminded me that the virgin birth is a truth, not a trinket, of Christmas reality. What a plan God has worked out for all those who trust his provision in his own dear Son.


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