Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
In the last post we saw how the genealogy that leads ‘Matthew’ might actually kick off the action of this particular version of Jesus’ story. In this way, even before Jesus is conceived he is the heir to Abraham’s promise, David’s throne, and Israel’s history of sin and exile. Verses 2 through 16 are shot with a wide-angle lens. Now we zoom in, to v. 16, to the months before the Messiah’s birth. But why? It’s interesting that this is a story ‘Mark’ either isn’t aware of or about which he doesn’t care. If ‘Mark’ is historically the first gospel, as is widely believed, the idea that the birth narrative simply isn’t known to the writer is very well plausible, but so too is the idea that it just doesn’t interest ‘Mark’s writer. Let us imagine why. ‘Mark’ seems to be about action, not (like John) theology or (like Luke) a historian’s ‘orderly account.’ ‘Mark,’ like ‘Matthew,’ begins with a heading: ‘The beginning of the good news concerning Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it’s written in Isaiah the prophet . . .’ and proceeds to introduce John, framed as an Isaianic preparer-of-the-way, as a way to frame who Jesus is as Messiah. So for ‘Mark,’ the story of Jesus begins with Isaiah’s figure preparing the way for the Messiah, whereas for ‘Matthew’ the story of Jesus begins with a nickle history of Israel and the story of his parents, and this is something to pay attention to; the fact that ‘Matthew’ includes this material might tell us more than just how Jesus was born and who raised him. Like the genealogy, the story of Joseph and Mary might be more than just bonus material; it might actually be integral to the gospel for Matthew.
If we take the place of the genealogy in this particular gospel seriously, especially if we treat it as a way of rooting the Messiah in Israel’s history, then we can see the rest of chapter 1 as filling out a crucial nexus point between Israel’s human history (1:1-17) and the Messiah’s story (2:1-28:20). The intimate details of the Messiah’s human birth to two particular Israelites, that is, reinforce the idea that the Messiah didn’t just come about into time or didn’t just drop out of the sky arbitrarily into Israel’s affairs but was truly born out of the continuity and problems of its history. Maybe this is why Mary doesn’t figure as prominently in ‘Matthew’ as in ‘Luke’ and why Joseph is more central to the telling. Note that, unlike in ‘Luke,’ an angel appears to Joseph rather than Mary (or rather, ‘Matthew’ doesn’t seem interested in whether an angel appeared to Mary). Note that, unlike in ‘Luke,’ Joseph is the agent of all of the action that occurs around the couple. Joseph after all, male that he is, and not Mary, is a link within the preceding genealogy and therefore a link that Jesus must be connected to in order to be the heir to Israel’s promises and curses as so far suggested in ‘Matthew.’ Jesus must be a son of Joseph—in some manner or another—in order to be a son of David and a son of Abraham. David, because Jesus’ kingship will hinge on the kingship that passes through David’s lineage. Abraham, among many reasons (read Gen 12:1-3 as well as Gen 17:3-8), because of v. 21—‘he will save his people from their sins.‘—which becomes a function of his being ‘Immanuel . . . “God with us.”‘
Let’s look at the two names that ‘Matthew’ gives the Messiah: Jesus (‘Yhwh saves’) and Immanuel (‘God with us’).
Yhwh saves. Most of us Christians are Gentiles, so we can tend to take Gentile Christianity for granted. When we read 1:21, ‘he will save his people from their sins,’ thinking of how Jesus saves us from our sins, we might be tempted to read ourselves into this verse. But all while we read ‘Matthew’ we’ll need to resist the impulse to impose the end of the story onto the beginning and to make Jesus our savior before he’s really anyone’s savior. If we’re paying attention to ‘Matthew’ so far, then unless we’re a descendant of Abraham as ‘Matthew’ goes to pains to demonstrate Jesus is, we are not ‘his people’ in ‘Matthew’s sense. His people, in this context, is Israel, and the sins Jesus will save, in this context, are Israel’s sins. Why just Israel’s? The short answer is simply that this is ‘Matthew’s apparent scope. More, this is the priority within the logic that ‘Matthew’ is setting forth. If ‘Matthew’ is positing Jesus as the answer to a problem, we don’t need to look beyond ‘Matthew’ to see what that problem might be; he’s already told us—or, we could say, narrated it to us—in vv. 2-16. Under this frame, the sins of his people are those stocked up in the history of Israel, not excluding Judah’s incest and David’s murder-adultery and culminating in an exile that completely derailed the promises delivered from Yhwh through Abraham. These are first and foremost, for ‘Matthew,’ the sins that Jesus is promised to save: Israelite sins, covenant-breaking sins, sins that stand in the way of the promises to Abraham (again, please read Gen 12:1-3 and 17:3-8). The Messiah can only save his people insofar as he saves his people from these sins, and a human can only save them from these sins of covenant-unfaithfulness insofar as he is a faithful party to that covenant, a born Israelite. The scope that ‘Matthew’ continues to set for Jesus’ Messiah-ship is that narrow and that wide.
Gød with us. The Messiah saving Israel from the sins of Israel, saving Israel them for the promises of Israel, is a function of the ‘Gød with us’ identity given to Jesus by ‘Matthew.’ But being given the name ‘Gød with us’ isn’t simply a literal identification of Jesus being ‘Gød [who is] with us.’ While it is true, it doesn’t seem to be what’s being said here, either by ‘Matthew’ or by ‘Isaiah,’ here quoted. Believe that the writer of ‘Matthew’ knew ‘Isaiah’ intimately, not just the quotable parts but its whole literary fabric. And when ‘Matthew’ pulls the quote from Isaiah 7, the writer is pulling it out of a passage in which Yhwh is promising a sign to the Judean king Ahaz that the army of Aram will not invade Judah (a sign, interestingly, Ahaz refuses to ask for). The sign, Yhwh says, will be this: ‘The virgin will be with child . . .’ etc. (Isa 7:14). What follows this sign, however, is the devastation brought by the Assyrians. What this means minimally is that Isaiah 7 is far unlikely to have been understood as a messianic prophecy—even if that’s how ‘Matthew’ co-opts it—leaving aside how unexpected it was that the Messiah might anything but human, might be Gød. That is to say, Isaiah 7’s Immanuel is less like ‘Gød [who is] with us’ and more like ‘Gød [is] with us,’ and if Matthew 1 is faithfully alluding to ‘Isaiah’ as we might presume, Jesus’ identity as that Immanuel is an identification of him as a sign of ‘Gød with us’—not necessarily a sign of Gød’s presence to Israel in and through the child but of Gød’s faithfulness to Israel in and through the child. This child of Joseph, in other words, a son of David, is a sign: a sign that Yhwh is with Israel, even to the extent that through Jesus—through the messy, bloody, shame-filled lineage of Israel—Yhwh will save Israel from the communal sins that have barred them from the promises of their covenant.
Bringing it Home
All of this might sound pedantic. After all, why would it matter that for ‘Matthew’ Jesus came specifically to save from particular Israel sins when we know that Jesus saved from all sins? Why would it matter that for ‘Matthew’ the name Immanuel might be more about Gød’s faithfulness than Jesus’ divinity when we know that Jesus is Gød? To a certain extent, of course it doesn’t. The larger witness of Scripture and the Christian tradition is of course that Jesus is Gød-with-us who saves all people from every kind of sin. Yet there is a larger point that ‘Matthew’ stands to make, and its import is not so much academic.
We sometimes say that the Bible is the story of Gød’s pursuit of humanity. But if you open up to Matthew 1:1, then take all of the pages to the left in your hand, you’re more essentially holding the story of Gød’s pursuit of small chosen people called Israel. Grip all of the pages to the right in your other hand, and you’ve got the story of Gød pursuing the rest of the world as a continuation of Gød’s eternal love affair with Israel. What kind of a god would Yhwh be if Yhwh invested all of those promises into Israel only to give up, scrap all of that and go be the god of the Gentiles instead? or if by some slight-of-hand simply declared the Gentiles to be the Israel that Yhwh actually intended save from the beginning? Maybe that would be faithfulness to the world, but that would not be faithful to Abraham. What would Yhwh’s promises be worth, and how many screw-ups would you feel like you’d be afforded before Gød found someone less troublesome to save? I think that’s a complex too many of us (myself included) suffer from enough already.
The point, then, is that Jesus necessarily had to be Israel’s Messiah in order to be our Messiah. Yhwh’s faithfulness to us could only come out of Yhwh’s faithfulness to Yhwh’s other promises. And that’s good news, so that maybe we can believe Paul’s words when he writes, ‘I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ’ (Phi 1:6). If Gød will bring a 4,000-year-old promise faithfully to completion despite all of its false starts and failures, what would Gød not bring to completion in you?