IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 2, March 8 to March 14, 1999

Commentary and Lesson on Matthew 1:18-25

by Dr. Knox Chamblin



    "This is how the birth [genesis, cf. v. 1] of Jesus Christ came about. His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit" (v. 18).

    1. The Time of the Spirit's Work.

      1. After betrothal. In that day, a Jewish marriage began in two stages. First came betrothal. The man and the woman, standing before chosen witnesses, gave their formal consent to marry one another. By this exchange of vows they became legally married and it was appropriate to call them husband and wife. (Thus NIV correctly speaks of "husband" and "divorce" at 1:19.) But it was usually another year before the second stage was reached. During this interval the girl (who was usually about 13 or 14 years of age) continued to live with her parents. This is where we are in the story. The time was yet to come when Joseph and his friends would come in procession to Mary's home to take her to live with him; cf. the parable of 25:1-13. Significantly, the Spirit acts upon a woman who is already betrothed. The Savior is to be born into a family.

      2. Before consummation. The Spirit's action occurs "before they came together [sunerchomai]," 1:18, i.e. before they began to live together and consummated their marriage sexually (Gen 2:24). There is to be room for no doubt that this child is miraculously conceived apart from the instrumentality of a human father.

    2. The Nature of the Spirit's Work.

      1. The Evangelists' reticence. Matthew tells us simply that Mary "was found to be with child through [ek] the Holy Spirit" (v. 18b; the same prepositional phrase is used in v. 20b). In Lk, Gabriel tells Mary, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" (1:35a). Scientific detail is conspicuous by its absence. God discloses that such a conception occurred, not precisely how; our curiosity over the latter is not satisfied. The Evangelists' reticence reflects their recognition that they are recording an unfathomable mystery.

      2. Sovereign visitation. Lk 1:35 indicates that the being of Mary was overshadowed and overwhelmed by the divine presence and power (cf. God's glory in the tabernacle, Ex 40:34-35.) That is meant to be sufficient for us. To suggest that the Spirit "mated" with Mary (as the gods did with human beings in the pagan myths, and as "the sons of God" did according to Gen 6:1-4), has no basis whatever in the record, reduces God in the most blasphemous way, and converts a holy mystery into an absurdity.

    3. The Theology of the Spirit's Work.

      1. New creation. The Spirit's work in this story recalls that which he did at the Creation (Gen 1:2; Ps 33:6). The Spirit accomplishes a miraculous act of creation in the virgin's womb, signalling that the Age of Fulfillment has arrived, and that God can be expected to achieve further such creative actions as He ushers in the kingdom.

      2. The being of Jesus. He is both human and divine; he has a human mother but a divine father. V. 18 speaks of "his mother Mary"; yet nowhere in Mt is Joseph called his father. Jesus speaks consistently of God as his Father (e.g. 11:25-27); he is repeatedly called "the Son of God" (e.g. 2:15; 3:17; 8:29). The connection between the historical fact of the virginal conception, and Mt's identification of Jesus as "the Son of God," and of God as Jesus' "Father," should not be overlooked; cf. Lk 1:35.

      3. The work of God. A conception normally occurs by human coöperation with God. Yet the coming of the Savior (1:21) happens by the divine initiative exclusively (cf. Jn 1:1-13). This corresponds to Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of heaven (4:17) as a divine invasion rather than a human reformation.

      4. The work of Jesus. Jesus is under the influence of the Holy Spirit from the very beginning of his life. Mt makes it clear that Jesus' public ministry is undertaken in the power of the Spirit (4:1; 12:28). That Spirit of power is at work in his life from the moment of conception.


    "All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel' - which means, 'God with us'" (1:22-23, quoting Isa 7:14).

    1. The First Stage of Fulfillment.

      1. The threat to Judah. A crisis arises during the reign of Ahaz (735-715 BC). Rezin of Aram and Pekah of Israel march against Jerusalem (Isa 7:1-2). Assyria was reasserting her power internationally under Tiglath-Pileser; Aram and Israel are seeking to unite their neighbors against the common Assyrian foe. On Judah's refusal to cooperate, the armies of Aram and Israel are coming to force Ahaz's overthrow and to put their own man, the son of Tabeel, on the throne instead (7:6; cf. 2 Chron. 28:5-8). As a result, Ahaz and his people are shaking with fear (v. 2).

      2. The appeal of Yahweh. Through Isaiah, Yahweh makes a twofold appeal: a. Have no fear; the power of Rezin and Pekah is about to be snuffed out (7:4-7). b. Have faith. At the heart of Isaiah's appeal to Ahaz is that he should trust in Yahweh: "If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all" (7:9b). Yahweh even accommodates himself to Ahaz's weakness and offers to give him a sign - whatever sign Ahaz might wish ("whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights," v. 10).

      3. Ahaz's response. "But Ahaz said, 'I will not put the LORD to the test" (v. 12). This sounds pious, but Ahaz's refusal of the sign shows that he rejects the word to which the sign was to point. If the sign were given, there would be less excuse to reject the word. Ahaz's refusal does in fact put Yahweh to the test: "Will you try the patience of my God also?" Ahaz tries Yahweh's patience by rejecting his Word. In response to the threat the king appeals instead to the Assyrian king (2 Kings 16:7-18).

      4. The Sign from Yahweh. Ahaz refuses the offer of a sign, but a sign will be given nonetheless. "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign" (v. 14a).

        1. The sign itself. The main difference over v. 14b is reflected in NRSV ("Look, the young woman is with child...") and NIV ("The virgin will be with child...."). The Hebrew word 'almah means basically "a girl of marriageable age, a young woman" (W. L. Holladay, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the OT). "It presumes rather than states virginity" (Kidner, NBC: R). The Hebrew word for virgin is bethulah. The birth of the child will signal that "God is with us" (7:14c) - the main point that Isaiah has sought to make to Ahaz.

        2. The meaning of the sign. How shall God be "with us"? In the first place, the birth of the child signals judgment. Note the opening "Therefore" of v. 14. Precisely because Ahaz has rejected the offer of a sign and thus shown his lack of trust in Yahweh, the sign of v. 14 shall be given. V. 14 continues: "the Lord himself will give you [plural] a sign" - "you" being not just Ahaz but the nation he represents. The instrument of Yahweh's judgment shall be the invading Assyrians - who shall devastate not only Aram and Israel but Judah as well (7:16-17). The very one in whom Ahaz has trusted, will be the instrument of Yahweh's judgment against Judah. But secondly, the birth of the child shall signal Yahweh's grace. In face of the coming catastrophe, Yahweh promises his presence. "God is with us" here, even - or especially - amid disaster. His judgment drives us to his grace. Cf. 8:9-22.

        3. The giving of the sign. Once the sign is interpreted as one of both judgment and grace, then clearly there has to be at least a fulfillment in the near future. For Assyria did actually invade Judah and devastate her territory (Isa 36-37). Who then is the child? I agree with those interpreters (e.g. G. Campbell Morgan, Matthew, 12) who see the birth of Isaiah's own son as a fulfillment of this prophecy (cf. Isa 8:1-18). (But Isa 8:8; 9:1-7 also point to the fuller meaning.) Applied to this stage of fulfillment, the name "Immanuel" expresses faith in God's presence but does not identify the being of the child.

    2. The Final Stage of Fulfillment.

      1. Jesus' birth as fulfillment. Note the use of the verb "fulfill" (Greek plarao) in 1:22a. We are to imagine a cup partially filled with water, and now filled to overflowing. That which was (at most) partially realized in Isaiah's day, has now been fully realized.

      2. Jesus' virginal conception. Matthew, like the LXX, uses the Greek word parthenos ("virgin") in rendering Isa 7:14. He does so under the impact of the historical fact of Jesus' virginal conception. NB that the influence was exerted in this direction (historical fact interpreted by the OT) rather than the reverse (Jesus' history written to conform to OT prophecy). In actual fact this young woman was a virgin; so Matthew chooses parthenos rather than neanis ("girl").

      3. Jesus as God incarnate. The word Immanuel now possesses a meaning that did not apply to the first stage of fulfillment. The birth of this child is more than a demonstration that "God is with us." He himself is God - now come to be with his people in the fullest sense. (Cf. Mt 28:20, "And surely I will be with you always....") Note how the immediate context in ch. 1 underscores this: "He will save his people from their sins" (v. 21). This brings us to the next section.


    "She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins" (1:21). As in Ahaz' day, the birth of the child brings both judgment and grace (as the rest of Mt will demonstrate). But for now, Matthew accentuates the saving purpose of Jesus' coming.

    1. His Name.

      "Jesus" (1:21a) comes from the Greek Iasous, which corresponds to the Hebrew Joshua - which means "Yahweh is salvation." As with "Immanuel," we find here a name that applies to Jesus in a way that was not true for Joshua. Joshua was an instrument of Yahweh's saving purpose. But Mary's child is Yahweh himself, now come personally to achieve his saving work. The name "Yahweh" applies with equal validity to all members of the Godhead. It is not merely titular but expressive of character (as in Ex 3).

    2. His Mission.

      It is appropriate that he be called Jesus, "because he will save his people from their sins" (1:21b). Note, in view of what has been said about the names "Immanuel" and "Jesus," that the people are said to belong to him, and that he is to forgive their sins. The people belong to Yahweh, and to him alone; and Yahweh alone possesses the authority to forgive their sins (cf. 9:1-8). In view of Matthew's presentation of Jesus as "son of David" (1:1), 1:21 is specially significant. Matthew makes it clear at the very beginning of his gospel that Jesus' mission is fundamentally spiritual in character, not political or social. On the identity of "his people," cf. what was said under 1:1-17; "his people" does not mean Jews exclusively, but the people of God as newly constituted around the person of Messiah - a people comprised of both Jews and Gentiles.

    3. The Response.

      We return to the quotation from Isa 7:14. The MT reads, "The virgin...will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel" (though cf. NIV mg., "Dead Sea Scrolls and he or and they"). But in Mt. we read, "The virgin...will give birth to a son, and they will call...." Matthew quotes the prophecy in close connection with the declaration of 1:21. It is his people, the ones he saves from their sins, that shall exclaim, "God is with us!" It becomes an expression of praise and thanksgiving from the redeemed people of God to Jesus, the divine and incarnate Savior.


    1. Joseph's Righteousness.

      "Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly" (1:19, NIV). Some think Joseph was "righteous and yet not willing" to act in accord with Mosaic Law concerning adultery (e.g. McNeile, Matthew, 7). I agree with those who see the word "righteous" explained by what follows: Joseph was "righteous and therefore not willing" to expose her to public disgrace (e.g. Schweizer, Matthew, 30-31). "Righteousness" is thus expressed in an act of mercy and compassion - so that Joseph becomes a prototype of Jesus and his disciples (cf. 5:20; 25:40; also Paul's concept of dikaiosynae as God's saving action).

    2. Joseph's Lineage.

      Mt 1 strongly affirms Joseph's descent from David (vv. 6-16). The angel who appears to him calls him "son of David" (v. 20). The importance of this is that Joseph, while not Jesus' biological father, is just as surely his legal father. Accordingly, the angel instructs that Joseph is to name the child (v. 21, where the "you" is singular), a command fulfilled in v. 25 ("And he gave him the name Jesus"). All of this certifies that Jesus is a true, legal descendant of David.

    3. Joseph's Obedience.

      Joseph's righteousness (v. 19) is further demonstrated by his scrupulous obedience to God's word.

      1. His obedience to the angelic word. "When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife" (v. 24) - his naming of the child (v. 25) being further obedience to the same command. Joseph simply did what God, through the angel, had told him to do. He thus provides us a model.

      2. His obedience to the prophetic word. Joseph also obeys "what the Lord had said through the prophet" Isaiah. The prophecy stated: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son" (v. 23). Accordingly, Joseph "had no union with her until she gave birth to a son" (v. 25). It was as a virgin that Mary was both to conceive the child and to give birth to the child. We see what sort of model Joseph provided for the child Jesus


MAIN IDEA: Jesus' claim to David's throne depended on Joseph being his father (1:16), but Jesus was virgin-born. Therefore, God sovereignly intervened to create Jesus' earthly family and establish his claim to the Davidic throne.

  1. Joseph and Mary before Joseph's dream (1:18-19)
    1. Joseph and Mary were engaged (1:18)
    2. Mary was miraculously pregnant by the Holy Spirit (1:18)
    3. Joseph wanted to divorce Mary (1:19)
  2. Joseph's dream (1:20-21)
    1. Joseph is the son of David (1:20b)
    2. God's son will be Joseph's son (1:20b-21)
    3. Joseph's son Jesus will save his people from their sins, i. fully and permanently restore the Davidic kingdom (1:21)
  3. Matthew's commentary: Jesus' conception and birth fulfilled Old Testament prophecy about the Davidic kingdom (1:22-23)
  4. Joseph's response (1:24-25)
    1. Joseph obeyed God by marrying Mary (1:24)
    2. Jesus became Joseph's son (1:25)


MAIN IDEA: Jesus' claim to David's throne depended on Joseph being his father (1:16), but Jesus was virgin-born. Therefore, God sovereignly intervened to create Jesus' earthly family and establish his claim to the Davidic throne.

  1. Joseph and Mary before Joseph's dream (1:18-19)
    1. Joseph and Mary were engaged (1:18)
      1. They had not yet had sexual relations (1:18)
      2. They were counted as husband and wife (1:19)
    2. Mary was miraculously pregnant by the Holy Spirit (1:18)
    3. Joseph wanted to divorce Mary (1:19)
      1. Joseph wanted to divorce her secretly in order not to disgrace her (1:19).
      2. Joseph's desire to divorce Mary was righteous (1:19)
  2. Joseph's dream (1:20-21)
    1. God sends an angel to Joseph (1:20a)
      1. God sends the angel because he knows that Joseph is considering divorcing Mary (1:20a)
      2. The angel comes in Joseph's dream (1:20a)
    2. The angel's message (1:20b-21)
      1. Joseph is the son of David (1:20b)
      2. Joseph should marry Mary (1:20b)
      3. Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit (1:20b)
        1. Jesus is human (1:18,20,21,25)
        2. Jesus is divine (1:18,20)
      4. Joseph should name his child "Jesus" (1:21)
      5. Jesus will save his people from their sins, i.e. fully and permanently restore the Davidic kingdom (1:21)
  3. Matthew's commentary (1:22-23)
    1. Jesus' conception and birth fulfill the Old Testament prophetic type found in Isaiah's child (1:22-23)
    2. Jesus' salvation of his people fulfills God's prior salvation of Judah (1:22-23)
    3. Jesus' salvation of his people ultimately realizes and fulfills the truth signified by the prophetic name assigned to Isaiah's child: "God is with us" (1:22-23)
  4. Joseph's response (1:24-25)
    1. Joseph obeyed God by marrying Mary (1:24)
    2. Joseph did not consummate the marriage until after Jesus' birth (1:25)
    3. Joseph named his son Jesus (1:25)


  1. Who are the major characters in this story? What characters are secondary to the action in the story? What is this story about?
  2. Compare this story to those Luke tells about Jesus' conception and birth (Lk. 1:26-56; 2:1-20)? Is there any similarity between these stories? If so, what? How do the characters, their speech and actions, and the events themselves differ between Matthew's story and Luke's story?
  3. Does noticing the differences between Matthew's and Luke's accounts help you determine Matthew's purpose in writing this narrative? If so, how? How does the context of the preceding and following material in Matthew help indicate Matthew's purpose in writing this narrative?
  4. How would you feel if you found out that your wife was pregnant, and you knew that you were not the father? Would you believe her if she said she had conceived by the Holy Spirit? How do you think Joseph felt when he found out Mary was pregnant?
  5. What evidence did Matthew offer that Joseph was a righteous man?
  6. Why was it so important that Joseph not divorce Mary? How did God indicate to Joseph the importance attached to Joseph's marriage to Mary? How did Matthew indicate to his audience the importance of Joseph's marriage to Mary?
  7. Why was Joseph supposed to name his son "Jesus"? Why wasn't Jesus named "Immanuel"?
  8. What does it mean to be saved from one's sins? How does the idea of saving people from their sins compare to the original meaning of Isaiah's prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-16? How does saving people from their sins relate to the restoration of the Davidic kingdom?
  9. How was the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14-16 originally fulfilled? How did Jesus also fulfill this prophecy? Does looking at Isaiah cause you to doubt Matthew's credibility? Does it cause you to rethink your definition of "fulfill"?
  10. Was Jesus' claim to the Davidic throne contingent upon Joseph's obedience to God? Why or why not?


  1. People have strange dreams all the time. If you dreamed that an angel delivered a message to you from God, would you heed the message? What if the angel told you something truly outlandish, such as that your wife had conceived a child, but not by you or any other man? Would you dismiss this as a simple dream? How do you think Joseph recognized that his dream really was a message from God?
  2. Read Isaiah 7:1-8:4. If you did not have the New Testament, would you think that the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14-16 had anything to do with a child to be born hundreds of years in the future? Why or why not? Could Jesus have fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy even if he had not been virgin-born? Why or why not? Could Jesus have been the Christ even if he had not been virgin-born? Why or why not?