The Holy Spirit and the Scandal of Christ’s Birth
When my son Simeon was three,1 he liked to look at the moon. We could be walking through our neighborhood on a partially cloudy night or driving along the highway at the break of dawn, and instead of first noticing the colored Christmas lights on the trees or the cool sports car passing on the left, Simeon would spot the moon. “I see the moon!” he’d belt out from his car seat. “I see the moon,” he’d say, squeezing my hand as we walked.
One night at home his gift for observing the obvious was especially memorable. He turned to the window, and there it was again. “Dad, the moon,” he said softly and with astonishment, as if he had never seen it before. “I know, Simeon,” I replied mildly and with less astonishment. I added playfully, “Do you think you can touch it?” Without hesitation he turned to the window, climbed up the arm of a chair, crossed over onto the windowsill, and reached his right hand up to the sky. He was only 384,403 kilometers shy of it. Discouraged but not dissuaded, he jumped down and ran to the front room, once again finding the moon. “There’s another one,” he yelled. Then he backed up. He ran. He leapt. He reached. This time I swear he almost touched it.
To Simeon the moon’s movements were mysterious, its light lovely, and its texture close enough to touch. Sometimes when we come to passages like Matthew’s condensed Christmas story, we don’t come with that childlike curiosity and wonder—looking at the everyday with awe, perceiving the familiar as fascinating. But we should. We should become like little children, which Jesus said is the only way to get into the kingdom. Here’s how we’ll do it with Matthew 1:18–25. I’ll show you in this text three important yet oftentimes unobserved observations—ones that when seen afresh, I hope will cause you to see the passage afresh. And perhaps for the first time in a long time, what has become ordinary will once again be extraordinary, as extraordinary as the moon in the eyes of an inquisitive boy.
Let’s begin our spiritual coming of age. The first observation is the scandal surrounding Christ’s conception. Look with me at verses 18, 19. For now I will take out the phrase that de-scandalizes the scene—“from the Holy Spirit.” I’ll take that out so you can feel some of what Mary and Joseph must have felt. So verses 18, 19 now read:
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…. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
What’s going on here? Two facts are clear: Mary is “with child,” and consequently Joseph doesn’t want to be with her. What is not clear, however (at least not to some modern readers), is how Joseph can be called Mary’s “husband” when they are not yet married, and how they are not yet married, but Joseph can divorce her.
The key to solving these riddles is grasping the cultural context. At this time and place in history, “marriage was held to be,” as William Barclay somewhat smugly suggests, “far too serious a step to be left to the dictates of the human heart.”2 As it was for most couples in this culture, Mary and Joseph’s parents had likely arranged their marriage. Here’s how it worked. First, the fathers of the two families would engage the couple. This would usually happen in childhood. Second, later in life, this couple would be betrothed. The girl was usually a teenager, and the man was usually older. So to be clear, their betrothal is not the same as our engagement. Rather, betrothal was the nearest step to marriage. It was the process of ratifying the engagement into which the couple had previously entered.
During the engagement period, the young woman could break the agreement if she was unwilling to marry the man. Conversely, the man could break off the engagement if the woman had not kept her virginity. But once they entered betrothal (which lasted one year), it was absolutely binding. During that year, although they didn’t live together or sleep together, the couple was actually known as “husband and wife.” This explains why Joseph in our text is called Mary’s “husband” (v. 19; cf. Deuteronomy 22:24).3 Now here’s the final point of clarification: the only way a betrothal could be broken was through a legal divorce, which explains what Joseph was up to in verse 19.
So then, do you see the scandal of it all? Mary is pregnant. Yet she is betrothed to Joseph. Joseph is not the father of this baby. Now, if this scenario is still scandalous in our anything-goes, play-by-your-own-rules culture, imagine how it would have been in their anything-does-not-go, abide-by- God’s-rules culture.
Mary was in a tough spot. But Matthew reminds us that Joseph’s spot wasn’t any softer. Mary was the woman whom he agreed to love, the woman who was to have his children and to nurture and teach them. Mary was the woman who was going to manage his household. And she was found out! She was found to be with child, and thus (apparently) with the stain of sexual sin. Worse than that, this baby was not his, biologically speaking. He had not touched her. He knew that. This could only mean that somebody else had.
Stop and think about this. Walk a moment in his shoes. Breathe the air he was breathing. How would you feel if you were in his situation? Would you be humiliated or angry or jealous? Matthew doesn’t tell us how Joseph felt. But it is difficult to imagine him so stoic that these emotions never entered his heart.
So what did he do? What could he do? What would you do?
He thought seriously and patiently about the matter,4 and then he “resolved” to do what was best for both persons: “And… Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”
Being a just man, he could not simply disregard God’s Law (see Deuteronomy 22:23–27), and to marry Mary would have been to do just that. It would have been to overlook an offense that God’s Word says should not be overlooked. In fact, it would have been to admit guilt when he was not guilty. In a sense, it would be to lie—“Yes, it’s my child; shame on us.”
I envision the weight of this decision in this way. On one shoulder Joseph has the righteous requirements of God’s Law whispering in his ear, “You have to expose her error. This sin cannot go unpunished.” On the other shoulder is the compassion and mercy of God’s Law (cf. 23:23). (And note here that it’s not a devil and an angel on his shoulders; these are two angels, if you will; two angels wrestling with his heart.) Compassion counsels him, “Joseph, a private divorce is the way to proceed. Dismiss her quietly. In this way you show both the justice and the love of God.”
Thankfully, for Joseph, Mary, and Jesus (and us!), God promptly provided an alternative plan. He whisked away these two imaginary angels and sent a real one. Look with me at verse 20 and we’ll fill in the blank that earlier we left in the text: “But as [Joseph] 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.’” From the Holy Spirit is the second observation I want us to see. We move now from the scandal to the Spirit.
What Joseph was missing was this bit of information, the important information given to us in verse 18 and to Mary during the annunciation. After the angel Gabriel gave the news and after Mary said in essence, “How can this be? How can I, a virgin, have a baby?” do you remember how Gabriel responded? He said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you” (Luke 1:35). Now notice in Matthew that this truth is twice emphasized. In verse 18 and here in verse 20 we find the phrase “from the Holy Spirit.”
Have you ever thought about the role of the Spirit in the conception of Christ? I’ll admit I hadn’t until Matthew made me. And now I’m making you. Rest assured I’m not going to delve into the mystery of it all. That is, I’m not going to attempt to describe (for the first time ever!) the supernatural/biological process by which the Spirit worked in the virgin’s womb. I am still waiting to be taken up into the third heaven for that revelation. For now I will simply point out the obvious—something as obvious as the moon, something so obvious you will wonder why I’m paid to do this. Here it is: The Holy Spirit made the preexistent second person of the Trinity into a human being.
The Spirit genesis-ed Jesus!
Why do I say it that way? Well, because that’s how our text actually says it. Verse 18 reads in the original Greek: “Now the genesis of Jesus Christ…” (cf. 1:1). It is not “the genesis,” of course, in the sense of the birth of God’s preexistent Son, but rather “the genesis” of the Spirit’s work to take the preexistent Son and form his inward parts—to knit him together in his mother’s womb, to make him “fearfully and wonderfully” human (cf. Psalm 139:13, 14).
Look how the creed of the First Council of Constantinople (the Nicene Creed of A.D. 381) summarizes what Scripture teaches here:
who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit [ek pneumatos hagiou—the same as in our Bible text] of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
It was the work of the Holy Spirit to genesis Jesus. Just as the Spirit “was hovering over the face of the waters” at creation (Genesis 1:2), so here for our salvation the Spirit “overshadowed” Mary’s womb (Luke 1:35), making God’s Son into one of us—with bones and brains and blood, with lungs and lips and lymph nodes, with head and heart and hands.
Here I plea for awe and understanding. We ought to be (again and again!) in awe of the incarnation. But we also ought to understand better the person and doctrine of the Holy Spirit. We ought to grasp not only the necessity of the Spirit’s work in the birth of Christ (i.e., “The Son is not the Son without the Spirit,” as Wolfhart Pannenburg nicely phrases it),5 but also that this work of the Holy Spirit in the conception of Christ is a fleshly work.6 The Spirit’s work is material, tangible, and visible. Ironically, the Spirit’s work is fleshly!
A few years ago, a non-charismatic woman shared with me, a noncharismatic pastor, an interesting episode from a charismatic friend who had just returned from a charismatic retreat. On the retreat there was, as expected, much emphasis on and expression of the spiritual gifts, especially speaking in tongues. Now, when these two ladies conversed about this—talking about the Holy Spirit—near the end of the conversation, the charismatic Christian said with great astonishment, “Oh, I didn’t know that you even believed in the Holy Spirit!” The assumption behind that remark (I assume) was this: people don’t believe in the Holy Spirit if they don’t talk about him often and if they don’t regularly manifest the outward gifts.
I don’t deny in any way that the spiritual gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12–14 are real manifestations of the Holy Spirit. However, I do want to say that the primary work of the Holy Spirit is not found in the spiritual gifts. The primary work—or I suppose we should say the primary works—of the Holy Spirit are found in creation and in re-creation (i.e., regeneration). And here in our text, as it is often in Scripture, the focus is on the Spirit’s work in creation, this time the creation of God in the flesh.
You see, one of the problems in the church today is that the work of the Holy Spirit is over-spiritualized. Does that sound strange? I suppose it should. But here’s what I mean: where the Holy Spirit is present in the world, we see the humanity of Jesus believed and even emphasized. Conversely, where other spirits, false or demonic spirits, are at work, we find a Jesus without flesh—a super-spiritualized Jesus, a kind of cosmic Christ.
This was one of the issues the Apostle John dealt with in his three epistles. It was the main theological controversy of his day. To put it plainly, the false teachers forgot about Christmas. They so emphasized Christ’s divinity that they neglected his humanity. And what did John say to that? Here is the apostolic acid test of orthodoxy: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:2). How do you know if your church is Spirit-filled? One way you can know is if Jesus—in all his heavenly divinity and in all his earthly humanity—is the focus! Frederick Dale Bruner calls this “the Christocentricity of the Spirit.” He explains:
It is my impression from a study of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament (cf. The Holy Spirit: Shy Member of the Trinity)7 that the true humanity of Jesus Christ is one of the two major “lectures” of the Holy Spirit. (The other lecture is, in Paul’s words, the Spirit’s teaching us to say that “Jesus is Lord” (i.e., divine, 1 Cor 12:3). To put this in another way, the Holy Spirit does two major works: first, the Spirit brings Christ down to earth and makes him human; second, the Spirit lifts Christ up and shows Jesus’ divinity. In other words, the Holy Spirit is a good theologian and gives two main courses: The True Humanity of Jesus Christ the first semester and The True Divinity of Jesus Christ the second…. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, in either course, to bring Jesus Christ into human lives.8
The Holy Spirit has been called the shy and humble member of the Trinity because it is his divine task to help us exalt the Father and the Son.9 So yes, I believe in the Holy Spirit! I say that with some conviction, even charisma. I hope you can say the same.
The role of the Holy Spirit in the conception of Christ—what a wonderful truth to think about on Christmas! It is as obvious as the moon but so often unobserved and undervalued.
Let’s review. Thus far, we have the scandal (the scandal of Christ’s conception) and the Spirit (the Spirit’s significant role in Christ’s conception). Finally, we have the surrogate, referring to Jesus’ surrogate, earthly father, Joseph.10
If the Holy Spirit is the shy member of the Holy Trinity, Joseph is the shy member of the holy family. But shy or not, his importance ought to animate our minds.
Look again at this passage before us and see how Matthew writes this story. He starts, quite plainly and straightforwardly, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way” (1:18). But notice he does not immediately describe the birth. There is no nativity. There is no mention of Mary’s labor and delivery. Moreover, unlike Luke’s Gospel, where the reader sees the unfolding events through Mary’s eyes, here in Matthew it is through Joseph’s eyes. Verse 18 introduces the situation. Then the rest of our passage focuses on Joseph and his conception, if you will, of the conception of Christ.
In church tradition Joseph has earned the nickname not “Shy Joseph” but “Quiet Joseph.” That is because he never speaks. That is, in the Gospels we have no record of him uttering a word. But here, while Joseph may indeed be quiet (so to speak), we see how his actions—his “prompt, simple, and unspectacular” obedient actions—speak louder than words (cf. his actions in chapter 2 as well).11 Look again with me, starting in verse 19, and pay attention to Joseph:
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…. She will bear a son, and you [singular] shall call his name Jesus….” 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 [the child’s] name Jesus. (vv. 19–25)
Joseph is the subject of most of the sentences above.
One of the first sermons I ever preached was on Genesis 39, which is the story of Joseph, the son of the patriarch Jacob (cf. 1:2b, 16). In that sermon I showed how the context surrounding the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39) was key to understanding the beginning of salvation history.
You know the story of Joseph, right? The world is still making musicals about it. The story of Joseph starts in Genesis 37, and it is quickly and apparently interrupted in Genesis 38 by the story of Judah and his illicit relationship with Tamar, his widowed daughter-in-law. I mentioned that relationship in the previous chapter. Recall that Judah and Tamar got together when they shouldn’t have and out came the twins—Perez and Zerah.
The question I asked in my Genesis 39 sermon was this: what does Judah have to do with Joseph? What does faithless Judah have to do with faithful Joseph? Why even mention Judah at the start of the grand drama of Joseph? Well, one reason is that he is a foil. Judah’s impurity highlights Joseph’s purity. Judah propositioned his daughter-in-law, who he mistakenly thought was a shrine prostitute. Joseph, on the other hand, was repeatedly propositioned by a powerful (and beautiful?) Egyptian woman and yet resisted each time. The other reason (and the more important one) is this: Joseph, who will come to power in Egypt, will save his brothers’ lives, including Judah’s. This is crucial, we learn at the end of Genesis (Genesis 49:10), because it is through Judah’s offspring that the Christ will come (Hebrews 7:14)—the lion of the tribe of Judah, the ultimate King of God’s people.
Matthew knows the importance of this story (the interweaving of these Genesis stories), and that’s why he starts his Gospel about Jesus with a genealogy. Matthew 1:2, 3 states, “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar.” Now, keep your eyes on those names (as we are following Judah’s line) and look ahead to verse 6, which leads us to David—“and Jesse the father of David the king.” Now we are getting somewhere! But where? Is this the king we are looking for? Well, let’s keep following Judah’s line that has become David’s line. Where does this line lead? Look at verse 16. Take your pencil and write next to this verse the word, “Wow!” “And Jacob [not the patriarch] the father of Joseph [Joseph who?] the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.”
So why is Joseph, the husband of Mary, so important to Jesus? What does this Joseph have to do with our Jesus? That’s the question for this text. Well, you say, he functions as a competent and reliable witness to Mary’s virginity (which is so important for the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, mentioned in v. 23).12 Yes, that’s true. But he is much more than that. Look at verse 20. The angel gives away the answer. “Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David…’”13 There it is! You can also put a “Wow!” next to “son of David.” Did you know that other than this reference only Jesus in all the Gospels is called “Son of David”? Which means what? It means that Joseph has royal blood. It means that this humble carpenter (13:55) is from “the house of David” (Luke 1:27). And God promised long ago that a king would come from the line of Judah and from the line of David to reign forevermore. In the annunciation, Mary hears this about her son (and I want you to hear it loud and clear):
He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:32, 33)
Jesus has the right lineage, Scripturally speaking. He is the son of Abraham and the son of David. But how does he get to be the son of David? Is it through Mary? Maybe. Maybe not. Nowhere is that the point, either in Luke or Matthew. Rather, and more certainly, it is through Joseph, his surrogate father!14
Why is this narrative before us so important? It is important because it shows us how Joseph made Mary’s son his own son. That is, he made Jesus his legally. How? Two ways. First, “he took [Mary as] his wife” (v. 24). Second, “And he [Joseph] called his name Jesus” (v. 25). By accepting Mary as his wife and by naming her child, he officially bestowed upon Jesus “the status of a descendant of David.”15
Think of the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel in this way. The first seventeen verses—the genealogy—confirm to us that Jesus is the promised one; and then the last eight verses (with their focus on Joseph) confirm to us that Jesus is truly from the line of David, or as Paul writes, Jesus “was descended from David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3). The camera lens is wide in verses 1–17 focusing on the big picture of salvation history. It narrows its focus in verses 18–25 upon the holy family—Mary, Jesus, and (don’t forget!) Joseph.
I don’t want to overdo this point, but I should mention (it would be wrong for me not to mention just briefly) how this fits with verses 22, 23.
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).
That is a quotation of Isaiah 7:14. It speaks of a sign—a virgin conception and birth—that would be given to the “house of David” (Isaiah 7:13). Now, while there is a child born in Isaiah 8, this child is not the full fulfillment of this prophecy. As we read on in Isaiah, especially in Isaiah 9 and 11, we learn of a unique child still to come. There will be a “super-fulfillment” of the prophecy, as Daniel Harrington words it.16 Isaiah 9:6, 7 reads:
For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.
So what does Joseph have to do with Jesus? Joseph adopts Jesus into the house of David.
Don’t underestimate the unique role of quiet Joseph. Quiet Joseph quietly bestows upon Jesus this kingly inheritance and right. Joseph the surrogate—might we say that he is as important as the Spirit in this Christmas story?
1. Simeon turned eight on May 19, 2012.
2. William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p. 18.
4. I take the “patiently” from J. C. Ryle. Ryle says, “He saw the ‘appearance of evil’ in the one who was to be his wife. But he did nothing rashly. He waited patiently to have the line of duty made clear” (Matthew: Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Crossway Classic Commentaries [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1993], p. 4).
5. Wolfhart Pannenburg, Systematic Theology, 2:32, quoted in Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1–12, 2nd and rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), p. 28.
6. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas says it this way: “For Matthew, the work of the Spirit is to point to the humanity of Christ” (Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible [Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2006], p. 33).
7. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Holy Spirit: Shy Member of the Trinity (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2001).
8. Bruner, The Christbook, p. 27.
9. So many of the epistles speak of the Spirit’s work but so very few benedictions, doxologies, and greetings address him directly. In these texts it is usually just the Father (Colossians 1:2) or the Son (1 Corinthians 16:24; Galatians 6:18; Philippians 4:23; 2 Timothy 4:22; Philemon 25; 1 Peter 5:14; 2 Peter 3:18) or the Father and the Son (Romans 1:7; 16:27; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; 6:23; Philippians 1:2; 1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; Titus 1:4; Hebrews 13:20, 21; James 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; 2 John 1:3) who are mentioned. Only twice do we find all three members of the Trinity (2 Corinthians 13:14; 1 Peter 1:1, 2).
10. I use the term “father” with some reservation, as only God is called Jesus’ “Father” in Matthew (cf. how “father” is used in 1:1–16: Joseph is not called the father of Jesus, but the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born).
11. Bruner, The Christbook, p. 47.
12. Cf. John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, repr. 1993), p. 95.
13. Calvin comments, “When he heard the name of David, from whom he was descended, Joseph ought to have remembered that remarkable promise of God which related to the establishment of the kingdom, so as to acknowledge that there was nothing new in what was now told him” (Ibid., p. 97).
14. While Luke focuses more on Mary than Matthew does, Joseph still remains the focus for both Gospel writers in regard to Davidic lineage. It may be assumed that Mary is from David’s line; however, it is never stated. This omission is important. Compare such silence to what is said of Joseph: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David” (Luke 1:26, 27); “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child” (Luke 2:4, 5).
15. Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, repr. 1995), p. 29.
16. Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), p. 40.