Monday, April 9, 2012

They Had One Thing in Common: UNcommon Faith - Matthew 1:18-2:12

Because we’re discussing two groups of people today, I’m “chunking” it to address each one individually for better clarity.

Joseph and Mary

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.
19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.
20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.
21 “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
24 And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife,
25 but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.

The first person of miraculous faith we encounter in this story is Mary, Jesus’ mother.  Although not many details are given in Matthew’s Gospel, you can find a much longer account of her commission to be the mother of Christ in Luke 1:5-56.  For the purposes of today’s study, let’s examine a few factors that demonstrate what amazing faith she truly had:

-          Because we know historically that women married very young at this time, Mary was most likely only about fifteen years old.  This miraculous pregnancy surely would have been terrifying to a woman of any age, but especially to one so young.

-          It may sound shallow, but what woman doesn’t worry about pregnancy ruining her body?  Worse yet, her bodied would be ruined so early in her life – before she was even married.

-          Becoming pregnant meant that Joseph could refuse to marry her, and with a baby, no man would likely ever marry her.  And back then, the world wasn’t like what it is today where a woman could work to support herself – if she were to survive, she needed to marry.

-          Pregnancy meant that her reputation would forever be sullied – everyone who knew her would think of her as a slut and shun her (it was a lot bigger deal in Jewish society than it is today).

-          Because no one would believe that the conception was of God, people would assume she had had sex outside of marriage – a crime, in the most extreme cases, guilty of death under the Mosaic Law.  Mary risked execution.

-          Back then, scores of women died in childbirth.  Surely this was on Mary’s mind.

Now let’s look at a few interesting facts about Joseph’s faith:

-          Verse 19 reads, “And Joseph her husband [to be, at that point], being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.”  Joseph knew the baby wasn’t his – so he had every reason in the world to believe that Mary had cheated on him.  Rather than getting mad and turning her in to be stoned, however – as he had every legal right to do – he took pity on the woman who he believed had had an affair and broken his heart, opting instead to send her out of town where she could deliver the baby without anyone finding out about it.  Because of this action, he is commended for being righteous (dikaios in the Greek, meaning right and correct – as in, the God-like thing to do).  What a strikingly beautiful example of love and forgiveness!  I am reminded of 1 Peter 4:8, “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.”

-          When the angel appeared to him in the dream, he actually believed it instead of just writing it off as a random, meaningless dream.  I can attest from personal experience that when God speaks to you in a dream, you still have to choose whether or not to accept it as such and obey it, or ignore the obvious and try to explain it away and ignore its message.  So, his obedience to the dream is also to be commended.

-          By marrying the pregnant Mary, he ruined his reputation as well – everyone would automatically assume that the baby was his, so his reputation was scathed just as much as Mary’s.  He faced the same consequences that she did.

-          This again may sound shallow, but is a genuine testament to his faith – Mary’s body was ruined before they would consummate their marriage.  Joseph willingly entered into the relationship knowing that he would never had a “perfect” bride.

-          Joseph waited to sleep with his wife until after she had given birth to Jesus.  He had waited for years, then waited through their engagement, and then – waited even longer, far after their wedding night.  Scripture does not mention if the angel also commanded him to wait to consummate the marriage, but whether he chose to wait himself out of respect for the Savior in her womb or was commanded to by the angel and that part of the conversation is just not recorded for us, his willingness to do this is incredibly impressive.

Overall, what can we learn from Joseph and Mary?  God can sometimes call us to things that seem unreasonable or even totally unfair – but look at the results!

Also, I’d like to briefly address the issue of the naming of the baby since it sometimes causes some confusion in our English translation.  In verse 21, the baby’s name is to be Jesus, which, as the text explains, literally means “Savior” (it was a common name – like Joe).  But in verse 23, His name is to be Immanuel, which is again identified in the text as meaning, “God with us.”  So…what’s the deal here?  Both names are clearly prophetic, but doesn’t naming Him Jesus instead of Immanuel violate prophecy?  No – it’s just a breakdown in the translation into English.  Verse 21’s “you shall call His name Jesus” means you shall name Him such-and such, whereas verse 23’s “they shall call His name Immanuel” means essentially, this is what people will refer to him as – a nickname, a reputation.

Also, in case you were curious, the scripture reference in verse 23 is pulled directly from Isaiah 7:14, with the addition of “God with us” being pulled from Isaiah 8:10, “Devise a plan but it will be thwarted; State a proposal, but it will not stand, For God is with us.”

The Magi, Herod, and the Jews

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?  For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”
3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:
7 Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared.
8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.”
9 After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.
11 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshipped Him.  Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
12 And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.

Let’s talk about the magi first.  Who were they?  Magi were astrologers (which at that time did not mean horoscopes, but was based on actual science – think astronomers with a spiritual focus), court magicians, and wise men – advisers to kings, in this case, in the East (so, perhaps somewhere in South Asia).  Seems like an odd group to come see Jesus, when you think about it, huh?  Let’s examine a few things about their faith:

-          If they came from the East, that means they travelled a long way.  Plus, they didn’t have cars and airplanes back then – they had to journey by foot, camel, horse, etc.  That shows that they were totally convinced that it was the Messiah they were going to see, and they were so awed by the fact that He came in their lifetime that they were willing to go to all that trouble to meet Him.  It makes you think – they were willing to do that just to meet him once…why then do we get “too busy” to spend time with our Lord?

-          In order to know when He would arrive, they had to be diligent students of both prophetic Scripture and the sky.  This goes beyond a doctorate in theology.

-          Since they were from outside of Israel, clearly another religion was native to their region.  But the fact that they came to worship Jesus demonstrates that they knew He was the true God.  They held faith in God in a land far distanced from other believers.

-          In verse 10, look how joyful they got when they realized how close they were!  I can just picture them grinning, bouncing up and down, and racing toward Bethlehem.  How dare we, then, view church and studying His Word as a chore?

A couple of other technical notes on the magi portion of the story.  First, all the nativity scenes depict them showing up when Jesus is born, but He was actually a toddler when they arrived (evidenced by the fact that Herod slew all the male babies two years old and under – Matthew 2:16).  It doesn’t really affect anything, it’s just good to know.  Second, it’s easy to pass over the symbolism of their three gifts, which are actually quite prophetic.  The gift of gold is because Jesus is King; the gift of frankincense is because Jesus is High Priest, and the gift of myrrh was because Jesus would die and be buried (myrrh was used to prepare bodies).

Next, let’s look at Herod – quite an interesting character:

-          The fact that he got so freaked out about the whole situation demonstrates that he believed it to true – and he turned to the experts (Jewish scholars) who could provide him with all the information he needed about this very-real Messiah.

-          Yet, even though He believed that the babe was the long-prophesied Messiah, He chose not to worship Him, but to plot His death.  Herod thought he was more powerful than God.

There’s also an important lesson we can learn from Herod’s interaction with the magi, given that he initially tricked them into thinking that he wanted to worship Jesus, too: it is very easy to be deceived!  Just because someone claims to be a believer does not mean they are.  In dangerous, suspicious situations like this, it is critical that we ask God for guidance – just like He granted to the magi here.

Finally, let’s take a brief look at the chief priests and scribes mentioned in verse 4:

-          From the information they provided to Herod, it is clear that they knew where the Messiah would be born.

-          Daniel, in the book of Daniel, laid out a specific countdown of when the Messiah would be born.

-          There was even the star in the sky screaming, “Look here!  Here’s the Messiah!”

-          All this makes you wonder – were they simply refusing to acknowledge the signs, or were they not paying any attention to the signs around them?  This question brings up two very important points.  (1) Jesus reprimanded the Jews of His day for not heading the signs (Matthew 16:1-3).  Are we today paying attention to the signs of our times in anticipation of His second coming?  (2) It’s fascinating to me that Gentiles from an occultic background, not the Jewish scholars who were intimately acquainted with God’s Word, who found the Messiah.  It’s truly a matter of your heart with God, not your status.

And in case you were wondering, the Old Testament reference for verse 6 is Micah 5:2.

Discussion Starters

Whose faith from our passage today was most inspiring to you?  Did anything about these people surprise you?  Can you think of any other aspects of their faith (or lack thereof) that I didn’t mention?  Anything else you’d like to say or ask? :-)


Anonymous said...

Kind of funny, going from His resurrection to His birth in less than a week :) I find Joseph's faith to be extraordinary. He didn't try to prove God wrong, he didn't try and come up with excuses, like I tend to do. Instead he took on the role of fatherly influence and role model, teaching the Savior of the world a trade, how to be a man, and deal with life situations. Kinda cool and daunting if you ask me!

Sapphire said...

Fantastic points about Joseph, Anonymous! I hadn't really thought about him having to *raise* the Messiah. Thank you for sharing. :-)

And yes, when verse-by-verse studies collide with topical messages for holidays, funny things tend to happen. :-D