This was uncharted territory for them. Mary and Joseph were engaged but not married, and this was definitely not the right time for a pregnancy. The thing is that God doesn’t always explain His timing, but He does always promise His presence. When Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant, he definitely knew that he was not the father and chose to secretly divorce her (in those days it took a divorce to break an engagement). While he was wrestling with his decision, an angel of the Lord appeared and beckoned him to believe beyond what he could see. This was definitely an uncharted territory, for both of them. Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, which had never happened before and would never happen again. They were facing the unknown and had to trust that God was with them and would guide them through this.
As we review the Christmas story of how God became flesh and came to save us, we realize that Jesus’ parents had to trust, as we do, in God’s faithfulness, protection, purpose, and guidance. Two thousand years later we still need to trust that God is faithful and keeps His promises, that He is orchestrating His redeeming purposes behind the scenes, even when we don’t fully understand them, and that He still guides us when facing the unknown. Joseph and Mary had never walked this path before; they needed God to guide them and communicate with them in a way they could understand. For thousands of years the people of God had been waiting for God to fulfill His promise of sending the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Redeemer. And now the time had come, yet everything looked so different than what they had expected.
Before we go on, let me share with you something about Matthew, the evangelist. He arranges his material very carefully in order to impact the reader most effectively. Five was an important number that carried significant symbolism for the Jews because the Law of Moses had five books. Matthew portrays Jesus as the new Moses, and arranges his material in his Gospel in groups of five; we call them the five discourses. Similarly, he divides the infancy of Jesus into five episodes, constructing each of them around an Old Testament prophecy: the birth of Jesus, the Magi, the flight to Egypt, Herod slaughtering the babies in Bethlehem, and Jesus growing up in Nazareth. In this fivefold infancy narrative God is seen in absolute control. He directs and guides each move for Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, even sending His angel, sometimes in dreams. The fact that God is so willing to communicate with humans to guide us in difficult and unknown situations has always brought much comfort to my soul.
Now back to our story. The first of the five episodes is the actual birth of Jesus. Matthew 1:20 informs us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream when he was considering divorcing Mary after he had found out that she was pregnant.
I can’t even imagine how confusing all of this must have been for him, and yet he submitted to God’s viewpoint, surrendering to God’s revelation even though he probably couldn’t understand much of what was going on. The angel announced that Mary would bear a Son, and His name would be Jesus, which means “Yahweh (the Lord) saves” (see verse 21).
In the next two verses (22, 23) we encounter the first Matthean prophetic formula, in which he connects his narrative with a quotation from the Old Testament: “Now all this took place so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: ‘Behold, the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they shall name Him Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us’” (NASB).* This quotation comes from Isaiah 7:14, where Ahaz, king of Judah, is also going through a difficult situation, facing the unknown future.
Let me elaborate.
The kings of Israel and Aram are coming against Judah, and Ahaz and his people are terrified (see Isa. 7:2). The Lord sends Isaiah to Ahaz to deliver the promise of His presence, to encourage him not to fear and to offer him a sign. But Ahaz refuses to accept help from the Lord because he prefers to make an alliance with a military power instead of relying on God’s presence. Still, God decides to give Ahaz a sign anyway so that he would never forget that God had offered him His help, comfort, and presence: a maiden would bear a son, and she would call him Immanuel, which means “God is with us!” Matthew asserts that this prophecy was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, and I believe that with all my heart. In times of uncertainty every part of this sentence should fill us with assurance: God is with us. Godis with us. God is with us. God is with us. Amazing! In times like these we all need this Christmas message. In times of uncertainty, when facing unprecedented challenges, we need the awareness of His presence with us.
But wait, there is more!
The angel told Joseph that the baby’s name would be Jesus, because He would save His people from their sins. Jesus, God with us, had come to die in our place on the cross so that we may have eternal life. This is the climax of God’s presence. Can you imagine? Immanuel is hanging on the cross. God with us cries out: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46). Immanuel felt the abandonment so that you may never have to. None of us, even in the direst of circumstances, will ever have to utter those words! Jesus bore our sin so that we may never be abandoned by God. Never! God with us is an ever-present reality until the end of the world.
And just when you start thinking that the promise of God’s presence doesn’t apply to you because it is only for people like Joseph and Mary, who were righteous descendants of David and part of the chosen people of God, Matthew surprises us with the second of the five infancy narratives in his Gospel. It is the gripping story of God’s guidance of the Magi from the East, a story recorded only by Matthew. The Magi were a priestly caste of astrologers and magicians from Persia or Babylon, usually trusted advisors to the king (see Dan. 1; 2). They arrived in Jerusalem, the Jewish capital, asking a very striking question: “‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him’” (Matt. 2:2). But instead of encountering a nation rejoicing about the arrival of a new king, they find King Herod and all Jerusalem troubled (verse 3). What a paradox! These Gentile Magi had come to worship, but Jerusalem was troubled.
Here’s an interesting fact about the title “King of the Jews,” that the Magi used for Jesus. It is found again only at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus is condemned and killed. This title, spoken only by non-Jews in this Gospel, is the legal charge placed on the cross: “This Is Jesus the King of the Jews” (see Matt. 27:37). In this infancy narrative we already find a foreshadowing of the cross.
Back to the Magi: can you imagine how they are feeling? Lost? Fearful? Without answers? How could they find their way? This was definitely uncharted territory, for they had never walked this path before. Herod asked the chief priests and scribes where the Messiah was to be born (Matt. 2:4), for he knew what type of king the Magi were referring to. The religious leaders answered, “In Bethlehem of Judea,” and Matthew comments, “This is what has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for from you will come forth a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel’ ” (verses 5, 6, NASB).* This quotation fuses a prophecy from Micah 5:2, given seven centuries earlier, with a Davidic passage found in 2 Samuel 5:2-6.
Can you believe that hundreds of years before, God already knew the exact place where Jesus would be born? I
am so comforted and assured by God’s foreknowledge and control over my life, aren’t you?
Herod secretly reached out to the Magi and pretended to be interested in worshipping Jesus (Matt. 2:7, 8), but God warned the Magi in a dream not to go back to Herod, and they never saw him again. But before that, what could the Magi do? Were they mistaken? Would they have to go back? And that’s when they saw the star again! And “they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy” (verse 10). Yes! God was guiding them, because God was with them! He was Immanuel even for those who didn’t qualify in the eyes of the religious people of the time. They arrived at the place where they saw the Child Jesus with His mother, and they “fell down and worshiped Him” (verse 11). They opened their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And I am amazed that through these gifts, God provided for Joseph, Mary, and Jesus during their stay in Egypt. God was in control and took care of their provision in every detail during that season of “unknowns” for the family of Jesus. He also guided the Magi in a way they could understand. Isn’t this amazing? Don’t you think Immanuel will also guide you in your seasons of uncertainty and confusion?
The Christmas story reminds us that God’s presence is always with us. This is the message Matthew places, like bookends, at the beginning and at the end of his Gospel. He starts his narrative with “Immanuel,” “God with us,” and he ends his Gospel with Jesus announcing, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). This is God’s promise to us for times like these: He will never leave us. The One who suffered on the cross for us will remain with us until the very last day of this world. You will never, ever, be alone, whether you are receiving unexpectedly bad news, or going through a season of suffering, or finding yourself in the midst of a global pandemic. The entire Bible, from beginning to end, speaks about the plan of redemption that God designed for our salvation so that He could be with us forever, just as He had envisioned it when He created us in His image. When humans ran away from Him, God refused to leave them. He was determined not to go through eternity without us.
May the promise of God’s presence and guidance be yours through the Christmas season, and every day of your life, until we see Immanuel face to face when He comes to take us home (Matt. 24:29-31). And if you ever find yourself struggling in uncharted territory, remember His words: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Yes, we are in His grip, and He won’t let us go.
* Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved.
Elizabeth Viera Talbot is speaker/director of the Jesus 101 Biblical Institute, a media ministry of the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church—www.Jesus101.tv.