Click here for a print-friendly version
Called to be Immanuel
Winter Quarter: Call in the New Testament
Unit 1: The Beginning of a Call
Sunday school lesson for the week of Dec. 13, 2020
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Background Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25
Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will birth to a son, and you shall give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1: 20b-21)
The Nativity as related to the synoptics
- To help us understand the dilemma Joseph faced in taking Mary as his wife.
- To help us understand the importance of Jesus’ names, Immanuel and Jesus Christ.
- To help us experience the wonder of Advent.
Matthew and Luke both include a “fleshed out” narrative of the nativity. Some claim John doesn’t include the nativity in his gospel. However, he does, in one verse! “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” Matthew and Luke do differ in their account of Jesus’ birth. Matthew records the birth of Jesus through the eyes of Joseph. Joseph is almost the main character in Matthew’s account. Luke definitely records the nativity as seen through Mary’s eyes. Many believe Luke, the physician/historian/evangelist/author of two biblical books, actually conversed with Mary.
The question of Mark’s omission of the nativity always arises. Mark and the early believers believed Jesus was returning quickly. But now 25-30 years have passed without Jesus appearing. The need for a written account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was growing. For the first 25 years, the gospel was passed through oral tradition. The church was extremely careful in passing the account of Jesus as the Christ. We might believe it impossible to orally pass information without error. Difficult, yes! Impossible, no! One of my instructors of N.T. Greek was born in Taiwan. His grandfather was a very studious and brilliant man who loved Shakespeare. During the revolution, books were being confiscated and burned. Included in the torched books were the works of Shakespeare. Before they could remove the books from his grandfather the grandfather memorized his favorite work of Shakespeare. The years passed without the books. When books were allowed again his grandchildren gathered with a copy of the book by Shakespeare and challenged the grandfather to repeat it. He didn’t miss a single word! Again, we read and understand the Bible through our western eyes. However, its authors were eastern. Therefore, they could pass on stories without error. Does that mean there is no error? No. Remember, the Bible has been translated in different languages and we have many varied translations. We must always be open to new light from God. Still, the underlying intent of the author and their message has remained unaltered. I believe it to be true that Mark was a secretary of Simon Peter. Therefore, Mark is known by some as Peter’s Gospel. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest and moves very rapidly with Mark using the word “immediately” to introduce a new section.
Why is it important to understand the background of the nativity in the synoptic gospels? Mostly because Mark is included in its entirety in Matthew and Luke. Without doubt, having been written years later, they used Mark as a framework. With this framework they added their perspective. Since Luke was a Gentile doctor, his gospel has the most healing miracles. His gospel is filled with compassion. Thus, it is known as the compassionate gospel. Matthew was Jewish man who worked as a tax collector for Rome. Thus, his gospel includes references to the Law, genealogy, and is very patriarchal. Matthew and Luke added the nativity to their gospels. As years passed, the need to understand Jesus’ birth became more important to the early church.
More information on Matthew’s Gospel
In reading Matthew’s Gospel, it is important to understand the early church’s understanding of the messiah. In a section of Isaiah known as “The Servant’s Songs,” the inspired prophet offers the Jewish people a vision of the Messiah. He is the “suffering Messiah.” We are even given a glimpse at the crucified Messiah. As we leave the O.T. era the Jewish people continue to believe the Messiah will be a human political, military leader and judge. The Messiah will overthrow Rome and establish Israel as nation above all nations. In the early chapters of Isaiah, we are given a vision of the world migrating to Israel from where light, truth and righteousness emerge. It is in Isaiah 7 that we are introduced to the name of “Immanuel” (God is with us!). Consequently, people flocked to Jesus in the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. Especially as long as he heals and performs miracles. However, when the performing of miracles decrease as his preaching increases the people begin to leave. Jesus’ message that one had to take up their cross to follow him was not attractive to the masses near the end. The disciples were human and flawed. However, they must be commended for staying with Jesus. They too believed in a Messiah who would deliver Israel from Rome. When it became apparent that Jesus would not call people to take up arms and overthrow Rome, the disciples stayed, or at least through the Jesus’ arrest. Jesus’ kingdom was of a very different nature. It was spiritual and eternal. It was then and even now moving through the world until the day it comes in all its fullness. Matthew sees Jesus through his Jewish eyes. Matthew, more than other authors of the gospels, ties the Messiah to the Old Testament and Mosaic Law.
Who was Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel?
Joseph was a mason, which almost certainly reveals his father too was a mason. Fathers taught their sons their trade. Therefore, Joseph worked hard for little money. If Jesus wasn’t Messiah, we would know nothing of Joseph. However, we are allowed to know him as a man, a man of God. He was a very devout follower of Judaism. Imagine a young, devout Jewish man in Nazareth. He probably found sufficient work since Rome loved to build buildings and monuments as a way to mark their territory and so the world would know the Romans were here. Alexander the Great employed this method in conquering the world. It wasn’t enough for him to enjoy military victories. He built schools from Egypt to Mesopotamia. Children were taught Greek as their language and schooled in Greek culture. He built building and monuments to mark his territory. Rome did the same. However, Rome struggled to dominate Israel. They had to endow Israel with some autonomy to avoid constant skirmishes. Therefore, they allowed them to have the Sanhedrin, and allowed them to rule over religious affairs. This reveals how strongly the Jews believed they were God’s people awaiting the coming of Messiah. Joseph is a man with compassion and patience. God chose the ideal instrument to nurture and care for Jesus and his mother Mary.
Joseph reveals his compassion and his kind heart in the narrative. By Jewish law he has the right to see that Mary is executed. The lesser response would be to divorce her. He is kind and loving and he chooses not to do such a thing to young Mary. The only other option he sees is to divorce her quietly to avoid bringing shame upon her. Remember, when one was betrothed, even though the wedding had not occurred, they were legally bound under Jewish law. He sees divorce as his only choice. If he divorces Mary, she will never be able to marry. No Jewish man could honorably marry her. Also, Jewish law stated that a divorced woman could not remarry, but the man could. Again, we hear the strong patriarchy in Judaism.
Yet, Joseph’s entire life is altered through one dream involving angelic visitation. Joseph must have been astounded that an angel would visit him. Only a select few of important people in Jewish history experienced angelic visitation. Why him? He would definitely have wondered. In verse 20 the angel proclaims to Joseph that Mary is carrying a child “through the Holy Spirit.” What could that possibly mean to Joseph? Mary did not become pregnant through the sin of sexual infidelity; in innocence, in some mystical manner, she is with child through the Spirit.
Who was Mary in Matthew?
Mary was a peasant girl, most likely in her mid to late teens. People tended to be betrothed to someone in their same social standing. She too is faithful to Judaism. She had to have great determination and faith. She is about to face the first of several serious incidences in her life. She will face the accusations and finger pointing in own hometown. Mary was seriously facing the ruination of her character and entire future. It was very difficult for Mary and Joseph to understand her pregnancy. The angelic proclamation brought her some hope that God was at work in her life, but she struggled to understand what God was doing. This struggle would continue all the way to the cross.
She would by faith and obedience walk through an extremely dark moment. Most men would have divorced her. Pregnancy would make her a woman of ridicule and mockery. Only a man of great character and compassion would remain betrothed to her. According to Jewish law, a husband could divorce his wife with little cause. He could remarry, she could not. If the divorced woman had no relatives to help her, she would be on her own. The discovery of her pregnancy erased the joy of her upcoming wedding and marriage. It would place her in a place in life she never considered. There is no preparation for a moment like Mary’s. She will give birth in a manger, in Bethlehem. She would have to journey several miles while pregnant from Nazareth to Bethlehem. She will then seek to protect Jesus when people believed him mad. She lives in fear he will be killed. Then, she lives through the most agonizing experience for any parent. She will watch her beloved son suffer horribly and eventually die. Thankfully, she is blessed to become a follower of her resurrected son.
Mary too experienced an angelic visitation. Neither Mary nor Joseph understood the events unfolding in their lives. Still, as people of faith who understood obedience to God, they accepted the events. After all, the angels said the pregnancy was an act of God.
I cannot image the confusion and pain Joseph and Mary experienced.
The importance of names in the Nativity
We are given the content of Joseph’s dream in the narrative. The angel proclaims to Joseph that the child will be named “Jesus.” Names were extremely important to the Jewish people. Names had meaning. They reflected either what was occurring during the time of the person’s birth, a character attribute, or the destiny for the person. Names also were associated with their character. If we pray in Jesus’ name
we are praying in the character of Jesus, “as Jesus would pray!” My prayer invoking the name of Jesus means I am praying in the spirit of Jesus, as he would pray.
The name Jesus means “he will save his people from their sins.” In Hebrew he is Yeshua, related to Joshua, which means the “God will save.” Jesus
is the Greek form of the Hebrew Yeshua. It is important to note the phrase “from their sins.” The destiny of Jesus is not to overthrow a government. Jesus is to save us from our sins
. His kingdom and government are not of this world; therefore, Jesus’ mission was not to liberate Israel from Rome. This world is to be redeemed by the eternal spiritual Kingdom Jesus brings.
The relationship of the Nativity to the Old Testament
After the vision, Matthew then ensures his readers understand Jesus is the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament. Jesus is the son in Isaiah 7 named Immanuel
which means “God is with us.”
There are many other references to the O.T. in Matthew. Matthew is determined to ensure we know that Jesus is the fulfillment of O.T. scripture. Here again, we are reading something unique to Matthew. His Jewishness is evident from the opening of his gospel. He relates the events associated with the nativity to texts in the Old Testament. Thus, we should never ignore the Old Testament as Christians.
The genealogy in Matthew definitely ties Jesus to the O.T. The genealogy anchors Jesus in the line of David. It was proclaimed the Messiah would come through the line of David. Again, the O.T. plays a major role in our understanding of who Jesus is. It also anchors Jesus in humanity. The trinity will always be a mystery. It is an eternal reality for which we have no words, nor can we fully understand it. We use the word trinity to describe Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We use metaphors in an attempt to teach the reality of the trinity. It’s the best we can do. Jesus is divine and human. We may not intellectually be able to grasp this truth. However, based on our knowledge of what Jesus said about himself and the way the first disciples understood Jesus’ nature, we can accept this remarkable truth. Our acceptance of Jesus’ divine/human nature is not a stab in the dark. It is the acknowledgement of the limitations of our intellect.
Conclusions and Questions
Outside the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary would have been an ordinary, unknown couple during the turn of the century. However, they are extremely important to Christianity. Young teen Mary conceived a son without knowing a man. Joseph had to decide what to do in a situation that was beyond comprehension. The two accepted and enacted their callings through faithful obedience. They had to totally trust God. Their circumstances move against the grain of human and social expectation and belief. No one becomes pregnant out of wedlock. No one would marry a woman betrothed to them if she was with child from an unknown source. Yet, they did! By faith! We can only begin to understand the faith and courage of these two. Joseph was the perfect father to rear young Jesus. Mary was the perfect protective nurturing mother. In this historical moment the divine and human are wed in which God’s utter grace is made known, and the couple’s humanity reaches for that grace in utter faith.
In John 13 the disciple informs us that Jesus knew “from where he had come.” Past experiences play a major role in the calling we live today. These moments can be comprised of the simplest things. It doesn’t have to be thunderbolts and lightening. Can you name specific moments you believe God has used to empower you to be a servant of Jesus? Our spiritual genealogy is not just based on our bloodline. There are people of faith and love God has used to mold and shape us. Can you name the people you feel God has used to mold you?
Joseph and Mary faced what appears to be, from a human perspective, an impossible dilemma. They chose God’s impossible over the world’s probable. Can you think of moments that appeared impossible, yet you knew something had to be done? How did your faith in Christ empower you to choose that which was right and godly? What attributes of Joseph and Mary would you like to possess? What circumstance did Joseph or Mary encounter that would prove most difficult for you? The nativity is not the “only” dilemma Joseph and Mary would face. The coming years would be anything but easy. Yet, they continued to walk by faith into the unknown. What has sustained you time and again as you navigate the difficulties in life? We have very few words from Joseph or Mary. They preached through their obedience and faith. Does your life speak without words? How? Jesus, Immanuel, is with us! In what disciplines do you engage to recognize Immanuel’s presence in your life?
In Matthew’s account of the nativity, God chooses the most common people. We may feel like we are one amid millions. However, God’s power to know each and every one of us is incredible! He does know the number of hairs upon our heads! Do you believe God can use you in redeeming the world?
Almighty God, the mysteries of life have confounded us, yet we are blessed through what you have taught us. Empower us to seek your light and hope, both present in the darkest moments. Use us to proclaim your love of the world and your redeeming will moving through history. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at email@example.com.