Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus is not as well known as Luke’s but it is just as important. Matthew gives is the genealogy of Jesus from Joseph’s side, while Luke gives it from Mary’s side. Joseph’s lineage is important because it traces the ancestry of Jesus from Abraham and through David. Of even greater importance, however, is the fact that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus–and that Jesus had no biological father at all. This is a point Matthew makes quite clear. Beginning in verse 18, Matthew says, in essence, “here’s the way it happened.”
First, Mary and Joseph were betrothed. In Jewish custom, a betrothal was just as binding as a marriage. It was much stronger than an engagement in our culture. While ending an engagement may be awkward and even painful, there are no legal ramifications or consequences for doing so. It can be accomplished through mutual agreement or by just one party changing his or her mind, and it takes nothing more than saying, “I changed my mind.” Not so with a betrothal. While a betrothed couple was not yet married, and the marriage certainly had not been consummated, the man and woman were viewed legally as being married and the only way to terminate a betrothal was through divorce.
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia:
The term “betrothal” in Jewish law must not be understood in its modern sense; that is, the agreement of a man and a woman to marry, by which the parties are not, however, definitely bound, but which may be broken or dissolved without formal divorce. Betrothal or engagement such as this is not known either to the Bible or to the Talmud, and only crept in among the medieval and modern Jews through the influence of the example of the Occidental nations among whom they dwelt, without securing a definite status in rabbinical law.
Several Biblical passages refer to the negotiations requisite for the arranging of a marriage (Gen. xxiv.; Song of Songs viii. 8; Judges xiv. 2-7), which were conducted by members of the two families involved, or their deputies, and required usually the consent of the prospective bride (if of age); but when the agreement had been entered into, it was definite and binding upon both groom and bride, who were considered as man and wife in all legal and religious aspects, except that of actual cohabitation.
The Hebrew root (“to betroth”), from which the Talmudic abstract (“betrothal”) is derived, must be taken in this sense; i.e., to contract an actual though incomplete marriage. In two of the passages in which it occurs the betrothed woman is directly designated as “wife” (II Sam. iii. 14, “my wife whom I have betrothed” [“erasti”], and Deut. xxii. 24, where the betrothed is designated as “the wife of his neighbor”). In strict accordance with this sense the rabbinical law declares that the betrothal is equivalent to an actual marriage and only to be dissolved by a formal divorce.
Matthew tells us that when Mary became pregnant it was after the betrothal but before “they came together.” I think this has two connotations to it. First, after a man and woman were betrothed there was a period—often one year—in which the husband-to-be would leave his wife-to-be, return home to his parents’ home and build a home—literally, a series of rooms—onto their home for he and his wife. So what was called the “hometaking” had not yet occurred. Second, the physical union of Joseph and Mary had not yet taken place. They were betrothed, not married, and they were neither living together nor had they consummated their marriage.
Mary was “found with the child of the Holy Spirit,” Matthew says in verse 18. In Luke 1, starting in verse 26, we see Luke’s account of the announcement of Christ’s birth. In verse 31, Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive a son. In verse 34 Mary asks how that could be. Mary, it says, asked the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” That is how it is translated in the KJV and NKJV, but the ESV, NIV and NASB render it, “how can this be, since I am a virgin?”
John MacArthur comments on this verse this way: “Mary understood that the angel was speaking of an immediate conception, and she and Joseph were still in the midst of the long betrothal…before the actual marriage and consummation. Her question was borne out of wonder, not doubt, nor disbelief, so the angel did not rebuke her as he did Zacharias (v. 20).”
At the end of verse 18, Matthew says that Mary “was found with the child of the Holy Spirit.” Both Matthew and Luke make it explicitly clear that Mary was a virgin at the time she became pregnant with Jesus. We all know this, of course, but we may become so comfortable with the fact that we fail to comprehend how incredibly important this fact really is.
In his book The Person of Christ, Donald Macleod writes,
The virgin birth is posted on guard at the door of the mystery of Christmas; and none of us must think of hurrying past it. It stands on the threshold of the New Testament, blatantly supernatural, defying our rationalism, informing us that all that follows belongs to the same order as itself and that if we find it offensive there is no point in proceeding further.
John MacArthur has written, “The importance of the virgin birth cannot be overstated. A right view of the incarnation hinges on the truth that Jesus was virgin-born.”
David Mathis, in an article entitled “The Virgin Birth,” has written this:
What is the significance of the virgin birth? To begin with, it highlights the supernatural. On one end of Jesus’ life lies his supernatural conception and birth; on the other, his supernatural resurrection and his ascension to God’s right hand. Jesus’ authenticity was attested to by the supernatural working of his Father.
Secondly, the virgin birth shows that humanity needs redeeming that it can’t bring about for itself. The fact that the human race couldn’t produce its own redeemer implies that its sin and guilt are profound and that its savior must come from outside.
Thirdly, in the virgin birth, God’s initiative is on display. The angel didn’t ask Mary about her willingness. He announced, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:31). God didn’t ask Mary for permission. He acted—gently but decisively—to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).
Finally, this virgin birth hints at the fully human and fully divine natures united in Jesus’ one person. The entry of the eternal Word into the world didn’t have to happen this way. But it did.
That Jesus was born of a virgin is a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah in chapters 7 and 49. If you believe in the authority and inerrancy of the Bible then there is no doubt that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant and still when she gave birth to Jesus. The Hebrew word used in Isaiah is sometimes translated as “a young woman” or “an unmarried woman,” which has caused some so-called scholars to suggest that Mary was not actually a virgin. The Greek word used by Matthew, however, is an unambiguous term–there is no other possible meaning or translation of the word.
Writing for Answers in Genesis, Chuck McKnight explains it this way:
The Hebrew word translated as “virgin” is ‛almah. While it is sometimes translated as “young woman,” we must look at the context to determine what it means in this particular instance. The birth prophesied in Isaiah 7:14 was to be a special sign from the Lord—a clear demonstration of His power. As young women regularly conceive and give birth, that would hardly make for a unique indicator. If ‛almah only meant “young woman” here, then any one of the billions of births since then could be claimed as a fulfillment of prophecy.
It was not, of course, possible for any one of the billions of births to fulfill the prophecies or to provide the perfect atoning sacrifice necessary to provide forgiveness for the sins of mankind. That Jesus was born of a virgin narrowed the candidates for prophecy to fulfillment to one. It was biologically impossible for a virgin to conceive. Even with the scientific advances we have today, which make unnecessary the act of sex in order for pregnancy to occur, a woman cannot become pregnant without the essential chromosomal contribution of a male. When Mary conceived the baby Jesus, however, there was no contribution from a male. Mary conceived miraculously, doing something no human had ever done before or has ever done since. Mary, a virgin, gave birth to Jesus, the Messiah. The one and only human who ever lived who fulfilled all of the Old Testament prophecies, the one and only human who ever lived a sinless life, and the one and only human who could pay the penalty for sin demanded by a just and holy God. So let us not lose sight of the virgin birth, because nothing could be more significant.