Jesus—His Life and Message: Jesus’ Birth (Part 1)

December 2, 2014

by Peter Amsterdam

(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)

While the story of Jesus’ life begins with the narrative of His birth as told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, in a way it began long before, as the Old Testament foretold His coming numerous times, revealing specific information about the Messiah, the Savior promised by God.

There are many ancient prophecies about His life and death, including predictions that He would be born in Bethlehem,1 come from the line of Abraham,2 be a descendent of Isaac3 and Jacob,4 come from the tribe of Judah,5 be heir to David’s throne,6 whose throne would be eternal,7 and would spend some time in Egypt.8

Within the Gospels we find the fulfillment of Old Testament predictions regarding Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and the salvation these brought to the world. Matthew devotes a substantial portion of his Gospel to connecting the Old Testament prophecies to their fulfillment in Jesus, the promised Messiah.9

Matthew begins with an abbreviated genealogy in order to show that Jesus fulfilled the genealogical requirements for the promised Messiah. His genealogy begins with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, and includes the patriarchs Isaac, Jacob, and Judah, thus stressing the Jewishness of Jesus. His reference to David presents him as King David, making the point that Jesus, through the Davidic line, had royal blood and could rightfully and legitimately be called “King of the Jews.”10 His Gospel carries on through the generations of descendants and ends with Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Author and historian N. T. Wright comments:

Most Jews, telling the story of Israel’s ancestry, would begin with Abraham; but only a select few, by the first century AD, would trace their own line through King David. Even fewer would be able to continue by going on through Solomon and the other kings of Judah all the way to the exile. For most of the time after the Babylonian exile, Israel had not had a functioning monarchy. The kings and queens they had had in the last 200 years before the birth of Jesus were not from David’s family. Herod the Great… had no royal blood, and was not even fully Jewish. … This birth, Matthew is saying, is what Israel has been waiting for for two thousand years.11

Matthew’s genealogy includes four women, which is uncharacteristic of biblical genealogies. Three of the women—Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth—were of non-Jewish ancestry, and Bathsheba had previously been married to a Hittite, a Gentile. Three of the four were of dubious reputation because of their out-of-the-ordinary circumstances and relationships.12 By including these women, and particularly Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth, who were not of Jewish origin, Matthew was likely making the point that Jesus is a savior for all people, not for the Jews alone. Jesus and salvation are for sinners and saints alike.13 He may have also included them due to the unusual circumstances of Mary’s conception, to demonstrate that it was not the first time in history that the line of David had been continued in an unorthodox manner.

Luke also includes a genealogy in his Gospel, though instead of tracing Jesus’ line only as far back as Abraham, as Matthew does, he traces it back to the first man—Adam—and from there to God Himself. He ends his list with the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.14 His genealogy doesn’t precede the story of Jesus’ birth as Matthew’s does, but rather is placed immediately after the account of Jesus’ baptism, when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him and a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”15 As Luke was writing to a non-Jewish audience, his intent was likely to show that Jesus was not only from the line of Abraham but that His lineage went back to the father of all humanity—Adam—and even further, to God Himself. Jesus, as seen in Luke’s genealogy, is for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.16

When writing their accounts of Jesus’ birth, Matthew and Luke presented different aspects and included different events, while at the same time they covered much of the same ground and made the same significant points. Matthew told the story with a focus on Joseph and his role, while Luke’s account focused on Mary’s role, telling the story from her perspective.

From Matthew’s account we learn that Joseph was a “good” or “righteous” man, meaning that he was an observant Jew who kept the laws of God. He was betrothed to a young woman named Mary who “before they came together … was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”17

In first-century Palestine, betrothal was a period of engagement preceding marriage. Raymond Brown explains it as follows:

[Betrothal] consists of two steps: a formal exchange of consent before witnesses and the subsequent taking of the bride to the groom’s family home. While the term marriage is sometimes used to designate the second step, in terms of legal implications it would be more properly applied to the first step. The consent, usually entered into when the girl was between twelve and thirteen years old, would constitute a legally ratified marriage in our terms, since it gave the young man rights over the girl. She was henceforth his wife, and any infringement on his marital rights could be punished as adultery. Yet the wife continued to live at her own family home, usually for about a year. Then took place the formal transferal or taking of the bride to the husband’s family home, where he assumed her support.18

While betrothed to Joseph, Mary was considered his wife, though they had only fulfilled the first step of the marriage process and they hadn’t yet started living together, neither did they have sexual relations. Yet before they took the second step, Mary became pregnant.

Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Mary’s pregnancy is from the Holy Spirit, but doesn’t give any details of the event. Luke, on the other hand, gives a more detailed account by recounting how the angel Gabriel was sent to Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.19Gabriel tells Mary that she has found favor with God and that you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 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.20

Mary asks how this will happen, as she’s a virgin, and the angel answers:

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.21

Mary, probably still in her early teens, asks the obvious question of how she will bear a child when she is only betrothed and hasn’t yet had sexual relations with her husband to be. The angel’s response is that the pregnancy would be caused by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. Brown writes:

There is no suggestion in either Luke or Matthew that the Holy Spirit is the male element in a union with Mary, supplying the husband’s role in begetting. Not only is the Holy Spirit not male (feminine in Hebrew; neuter in Greek), but also the manner of begetting is implicitly creative rather than sexual.22 Neither in Matthew or Luke does the divine begetting of Jesus become a sexual begetting. The Holy Spirit is the agency of God’s creative power, not a male partner in a marriage between a deity and a woman.23

This conception is like no other throughout time. Mary becomes pregnant through a creative act of God. We are not told exactly how this creative act occurred any more than we are told the details of how God created the world, other than that He spoke it and made it so.

Mary gives her consent when she says, Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.24Fulton Sheen beautifully describes the situation like this:

What is called the Annunciation was actually God asking the free consent of a creature to help Him to be incorporated into humanity. … What He did, therefore, was to ask a woman, representing humanity, freely to give Him a human nature with which He would start a new humanity. As there was an old humanity in Adam, so there would be a new humanity in Christ, Who was God made man through the free agency of a human mother.25

The angel gives Mary a sign that these things are so; he tells her that Elizabeth, her elderly relative, has also conceived a son. Luke recounts that Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah to visit Elizabeth, who, though past child-bearing age, had also miraculously conceived a son.26 (More on Elizabeth’s story in parts 2 and 3.)

After staying with Elizabeth for approximately three months, Mary returns home to Nazareth three months pregnant. Upon her return, she is faced with the obvious problem that she is pregnant and Joseph knows that he isn’t the father. Matthew makes it clear that Mary and Joseph hadn’t been together prior to Mary’s pregnancy when he writes: before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.27

Realizing Mary was pregnant, and knowing that the child wasn’t his, we can only imagine the hurt, pain, sadness, betrayal, and anger that Joseph must have felt. Matthew tells us that he considered these things.28

Kenneth Bailey wrote:

The Greek word here translated “he considered” has two meanings. To be sure, one of them is “he considered/pondered.” But a second meaning is “he became angry.” Isn’t anger the natural emotion for him to have felt? … On hearing that his fiancé was pregnant, is he expected to sit quietly and “consider” this matter? Or would he naturally feel deeply disappointed and indeed angry? … A literal meaning of the Greek word has to do with anger within the person involved … Perhaps “while he fumed over this matter” is a more accurate translation of the original Greek and better captures the authenticity of the human scene.29

Mary, Joseph’s bride to be, had in his mind committed adultery. Under the Mosaic law, she could be stoned to death for this.30 But Joseph, unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.31 Some translations render it as “to put her away” or “send her away secretly.” It wasn’t possible to have a totally secret divorce, as the writ or certificate of divorce had to be delivered by the husband to the wife before two witnesses. Nor could Mary’s shame be hidden indefinitely, as her pregnancy would soon become common knowledge, and no matter what reason Joseph would have given for the divorce, everyone would have concluded that adultery was the real reason. By saying Joseph resolved to divorce her quietly, Matthew may have meant that Joseph wasn’t going to publicly accuse Mary of adultery—which would have subjected her to a trial—but was going to offer a less serious reason as grounds for divorce. To “divorce quietly” may mean to divorce leniently.32 For Joseph, a righteous man who kept the laws of God, divorcing Mary was the right thing to do. He meant to be merciful about it, as he didn’t plan to give adultery as the reason, but he did intend to divorce her in alignment with the law.

We’re then told that 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. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 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 his name Jesus.33

The message given to Joseph in the dream puts an end to thoughts of divorce and his concern about transgressing the Mosaic law by marrying Mary. The angel proclaims that the child is from the Holy Spirit, and therefore he doesn’t need to fear that he would be breaking God’s law by marrying her, as no adultery has been committed. Joseph understands and follows this direction.

Joseph then fulfills the second step of marriage by taking Mary into his home as his wife, thus assuming responsibility for Mary and the child to be born. After the birth, Joseph names the child Jesus, as he was commanded by the angel. By naming the child, Joseph acknowledges the child as his own. Jewish law based paternity on the man’s acknowledgment of the child. By exercising the father’s right to name the child, Joseph acknowledges his wife’s child as his legitimate son and thus becomes the legal father of Jesus.34

Though Joseph took Mary into his house as his wife, they weren’t sexually intimate until after the birth of Jesus. Matthew wrote that he knew her not until she had given birth to a son.35 The Greek word translated as “knew” is an idiom for sexual intercourse. The general Protestant understanding is that while there were no relations between them until Jesus was born, afterward they were married in every sense of the word.36 All four of the Gospel writers make mention of Jesus’ brothers,37 and Mark calls the brothers by name and mentions His sisters as well.

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.38

Some claim that these were Joseph’s children from an earlier marriage and that he was a widower. More likely is that Mary and Joseph had a normal marriage after Jesus’ birth and raised at least seven children together, with Jesus being the oldest. It was most likely known in Nazareth that Mary had been pregnant with Jesus before she was living with Joseph, as the child would have been born much less than nine months after Mary had moved in with Joseph. We aren’t told specifically what the attitude of the people of Nazareth was toward Mary and Jesus, but perhaps we catch a glimpse of it later in Jesus’ life when some of the Jews seem to be mocking Him by saying, We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.39

Matthew and Luke’s Gospels speak of Mary conceiving without human agency, through an act of the Holy Spirit. Mary and Joseph both had to make choices of faith. For Mary, it was a choice to believe what the angel told her, and to accept the commission to be the mother of the Messiah, God’s only begotten Son. For Joseph, it was a choice to believe what the angel told him in the dream, that the child was from the Holy Spirit, that this was God’s doing. Both Mary and Joseph showed their love for and trust in God through their decisions. They were people of faith, and clearly the chosen ones to raise Jesus.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.

Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Charlesworth, James H., ed. JesusJewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:2716:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Flusser, David. Jesus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998.

Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering JesusGenius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 2007.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1997.

Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 18:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.

Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1976.

Manson, T. W. The Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1957.

Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 2010.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1992.

Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

Spangler, Ann, and Lois Tverberg. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Stein, Robert H. The Method and Message of JesusTeachings, Revised Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Stott, John R. W. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978.

Wood, D. R. W., I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman, eds. New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Wright, N. T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

Yancey, Philip. The Jesus I Never Knew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

1 Micah 5:2.

2 Genesis 12:3, 22:18.

3 Genesis 17:19, 21:12.

4 Numbers 24:17.

5 Genesis 49:10.

6 2 Samuel 7:12–13; Isaiah 9:7.

7 Psalm 45:6–7; Daniel 2:44.

8 Hosea 11:1.

9 Matthew 2:15,17,23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:56; 27:9.

10 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 24.

11 Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1, 2–3.

12 For a more detailed account of the four women, see: The Five Women of Christmas.

13 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 23.

14 Luke 3:38.

15 Luke 3:22.

16 There are discrepancies between Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies. A great deal of ink has been used throughout history to explain the differences. Some claim that Matthew tells us of Joseph’s ancestry while Luke tells of Mary’s, others that there was a Levirate marriage in one which accounts for the discrepancy. There have been many other different detailed explanations written on the topic. It becomes a major point for those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, that every word of Scripture is true in every detail. It is less of a problem for those who consider the Bible as infallible, meaning that what the Bible teaches is absolutely true, without demanding that every word used is inerrant. Both Matthew and Luke clearly teach us that Jesus was a descendant of King David, which is in alignment with the Old Testament prophecies.

17 Matthew 1:18.

18 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 123–24.

19 Luke 1:26–27.

20 Luke 1:31–33.

21 Luke 1:35.

22 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 124.

23 Ibid., 137.

24 Luke 1:38.

25 Sheen, Life of Christ, 9–10.

26 Luke 1:39.

27 Matthew 1:18.

28 Matthew 1:20.

29 Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 46.

30 If the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father's house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst (Deuteronomy 22:20–21).

31 Matthew 1:19.

32 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 128.

33 Matthew 1:20–21, 24–25.

34 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 139.

35 Matthew 1:24–25.

36 This will be covered more in depth in part 5.

37 After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days (John 2:12).

Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd (Luke 8:19).

While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him (Matthew 12:46).

38 Mark 6:3.

39 John 8:41.