The book of Matthew opens after 400 years of silence. For 400 years, no prophetic voice had spoken. Malachi had concluded what we recognise as the Old Testament canon some four centuries before the angel appeared to Mary. By that time, Israel as a nation was in a bad state spiritually. For the most part, the nation had apostatised. The spiritual leadership was corrupt. The nation suffered economically, and living under Roman rule—and particularly in the jurisdiction of Herod—did not help matters. Perhaps many Jews wondered at that time whether God had forgotten them.
We are introduced to a young betrothed couple, Mary and Joseph. Mary was perhaps as young as 13, Joseph probably a little older. The marriage had not yet been consummated, but suddenly Mary was found to be expecting a child. Joseph’s dreams were doubtless dashed. Few, if any, believed Mary’s claim to virginity, and doubtless Joseph himself did not believe her at first. But soon the silence was broken for Joseph, as the angel assured him that Mary was indeed a virgin, and that her child was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Many Israelites doubtless felt abandoned by God, but the truth was that they had been the ones who had abandoned God. Their consciences were plagued with guilt, and all hope seemed to have died. But just as the silence was broken in Mary’s life, and in Joseph’s life, so again it was broken in the life of the nation as the angels burst forth in song, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14).
The record of the birth of Jesus in the pages of Scripture is a historical account. The virgin birth was an event that took place in space and time. And it was an event that took place, historically, in God’s perfect time.
Christmas is a wonderful time of year, but the promise of Christmas is even greater: “He shall save his people from their sins” (v. 21). At Christmastime, there is much talk about the babe in the manger, but sadly people often forget that Jesus did not remain a babe in a manger. He grew to a man, lived for 33 sinless years on earth, died on the cross in the place of sinners, rose victorious over sin and death, and even now He sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven. Indeed, He accomplished what He came to do: He secured salvation for His people. The promise of Christmas came true in space and time.
Perhaps as you read these words you need to be reminded of the promise of Christmas. Perhaps you read with a sorrow-filled heart, a guilt-laden conscience, an anxiety-driven mind, or a confused faith. If this describes you, may you be encouraged by the promise of Christmas. May God break into the silence in your life and encourage you in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Predicament of Joseph
As our passage opens, we are introduced to Joseph, the man betrothed to Mary, who was to become the earthly father figure of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily.
Perhaps reading these verses, you were struck, as I was, at the similarities between Joseph and his Old Testament namesake. Like the Joseph of the Genesis record, this Joseph was a devoted man. Verse 19 speaks of him as a “just” or righteous man, and certainly righteousness was characteristic of Old Testament Joseph. He was further a despised man. Joseph of the Old Testament was despised by his brothers to the point that they sold him as a slave into Egypt. Joseph of the New Testament was doubtless despised by the community as he took to wife a woman whom they perceived to be an adulteress. No one would have believed that she was a virgin; the obvious evidence spoke clearly to the contrary. Both Josephs received revelation from God in dream form, and both were diligent to obey the revelation received. Just as Joseph in Genesis was used by God (via the food distribution ministry in Egypt) to preserve the line of Messiah (by providing food for Judah), so New Testament Joseph acted as a deliverer of Messiah from Herod (see Matthew 2).
Nevertheless, as our story opens Joseph—again like his Old Testament namesake—was perhaps somewhat disillusioned. Like Joseph of old, he needed the encouragement that Yahweh was with him (cf. Genesis 39:2, 3, 21, 23). He needed the promise of Christmas to encourage him.
Perhaps it would be fitting to pause at this point and ask whether you have ever felt this way? Have you ever felt disillusioned? Has life seemed confusing, perhaps even hopeless? Is that the situation you find yourself in right now? Then be encouraged by the promise of Christmas, by the promise of Jesus.
The Promise of Jesus
The promise of Christmas is in fact the promise of Jesus. It was the promise of Jesus that enabled Joseph to deal fruitfully and faithfully with his predicament. And the same is true for you and me. The promise of Jesus gives us hope. Let’s examine this truth in the life of Joseph and learn from it.
The Promise of the Supernatural
First, we see that the promise of Jesus to Joseph was a promise of the supernatural. “But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost” (v. 20). God broke through in space and time to speak to Joseph in his moment of need. And His message to His servant was one of a supernatural promise: Mary was carrying the child of the Holy Spirit.
I recently saw the film The Nativity Story which is largely an accurate portrayal of the story of Joseph and Mary. As I watched it, I was reminded of the reality of the difficulties that Joseph and Mary had to face historically; perhaps none more troubling that the inner turmoil that Joseph experienced as he wondered, perhaps for months, what course of action to follow in light of his betrothed’s seeming infidelity. But then God spoke, and he was carried through this difficulty by the promise of Christmas. Yes, as impossible as it might seem, Mary was still a virgin.
But more than God breaking into Joseph’s predicament, the promise of Christmas was about God breaking into our predicament. We were sinners, lost and hopeless. We had abandoned God, and were running with our backs to Him. But, in His great mercy, He broke into history with the promise of Jesus, the One who would save His people from their sins. We have not been abandoned. He can do the miraculous: He can restore us to a right relationship with Him.
When I was in high school I had a friend by the name of Bill. When we left high school, we went our different directions. In college, God graciously broke into my life and restored me to a right relationship with Him. During the summer break, Bill and I met up again in our home town, and he could see that something was different. I had several opportunities that summer to witness to him, as did another friend who had also been in high school with us. Our witnessing seemed to have little impact, but when we all returned to college after the summer break God again did the miraculous.
Bill was 6″4′ and 110kg and had a great future in football. Back at college that year, a Christian on the college gymnastics (50kgs!) team led Bill to the Lord. Bill is now the national director of Athletes in Action for Campus Crusade for Christ. Bill recalls that he was willing to entertain the witness of the little gymnast because if he offended him he was big enough to throw the smaller man out the window! But God used that scrawny little gymnast to bring the supernatural promise of Christmas to reality in Bill’s life.
The Promise of Salvation
But not only is the promise of Christmas a promise of the supernatural; it is also the promise of salvation. “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins” (v. 21). Joseph would certainly be scorned by the world. Who would believe the outrageous story of a virgin birth? But Joseph could be encouraged, for though he would be scorned by many, the child carried by Mary was the very Seed of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent (cf. Genesis 3:15). Joseph would be scorned, but Jesus would save His people from their sins.
The name “Jesus” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name “Joshua.” The name means “Yahweh is salvation,” and it was a common name in New Testament times. Many named their children Joshua or Jesus after the great military leader of the Old Testament. Thus, the name “Jesus” given to Mary’s son was hardly unique. But certainly this Joshua, this Jesus would be unique. He was the Joshua (Jesus), the Saviour of men sent by God into the world.
Hebrews 4:8ff speaks of the fact that the first Joshua (the KJV calls him “Jesus”) had failed to give full rest to God’s people, but that Jesus Christ accomplished that very task. Joshua of old was a godly man and a great military leader, but he could not save people from their sins. Certainly he could deliver them militarily and offer a degree of political security, but he could not meet their greatest need, which was deliverance from sin. But this Joshua, this Jesus, regardless of what people thought of Joseph and Mary, was the One who would save His people from their sins!
When you understand the promise of salvation—that Jesus was sent to save His people from their sins—then the importance of the virgin birth cannot be underestimated. The virgin birth meant that He did not inherit a sin nature. This was further proven by 33 years of sinless living. He “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
The promise of salvation gives significance and meaning to our troubles. Be sure that sorrow will attend the lives of those who embrace the promise of Christmas, yet that very promise affords perspective in the midst of that sorrow. I read a wonderful illustration of this truth in the prayer letter of a missionary recently.
A close friend sent us a real Christmas (pine) tree, which our kids like so much. This friend, named HL, is a Finnish pastor and a great evangelist. He was the co-leader for the seminary where we help teach. His wife has been my wife’s faithful prayer partner for the last three years. She used to come to our home for Bible study and intercessory prayer meeting twice a week.
Two days after sending the tree, HL was taken by the police at the gas station near our home. Immediately we called out people to pray. A few hours later he called his wife: “They put me in prison, chained my hands, but I don’t know where this prison is. We have to leave the country tomorrow morning.” That night, my wife went to their house to help pack. It was very sad and chaotic. Imagine if you have to leave within 24 hours after living here for six years. We kept calling more people to pray.
One of those who prayed was a Sri Lankan domestic worker, the leader of the Sri Lankan fellowship where HL also ministered. The next morning she was determined to go from prison to prison. She found him after three hours, then later people from the UN and the embassy were involved. He was found preaching! He asked his wife to send him Bibles. Later that evening, HL called my wife. He was released by had to leave right away. Guarded by three men, briefly he came home and then they sent him to the airport.
So he was a faithful Christian witness to the very end. We remember a senior local pastor said, “If they deport you, make sure it’s for a good reason.” Among those in prison who heard him preaching was a Muslim cleric, who listened carefully. At the end he said he was supposed to hate him, but somehow he just wanted to bless him.
HL’s wife and two boys left a week later. Though we miss them, it’s not a defeat but a victory. God speaks to His church to be faithful, to be aggressive despite persecution.
This pastor ministered for six years, and was eventually forced to leave the country of his ministry within 24 hours. Yet in his arrest and subsequent deportment, he did not lose perspective, for he had the promise of the Saviour.
The Promise of Success
Third, the promise of Christmas is the promise of success. “And thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins” (v. 21). Observe closely: “He shall save his people from their sins.” There was no doubt as to the outcome: Christ would accomplish that which He came to do. God is faithful; He is committed to His covenant. “Joseph, the promise is certain. You can commit your life to it.”
Our Saviour is victorious! There is no question of it. He will not abandon His people. Trials may come, difficulties may arise, but the promise is wonderful: Jesus will save His people from their sins!
We should also notice that the promise concerns “his people.” He will save “his people” from their sins. Who are “his people”? The Jews? Not exclusively, for all who are in Christ are part of “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16). Jesus Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it. All His sheep will hear His voice and will come to Him. Do you see friends and loved ones spurning the gospel? Are you disheartened as they openly reject Christ? Be encouraged: If they are His sheep they will hear His voice! He will not fail: He will save His people from their sins! That’s the promise of Christmas.
How do you know that you are one of His sheep? Ask yourself this question: Do you realise that you need a Saviour? Do not boast in your own goodness or morality. Do not rest in the heritage of your religious family. Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance. If you realise in your heart of hearts that you are a sinner in need of a Saviour, then be encouraged, for Jesus came to save sinners.
The Promise of Scripture
The promise of Christmas was, furthermore, a promise of Scripture. That is, the promise was given in Scripture and therefore fulfilled according to Scripture. “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (vv. 22–23).
I am sure that Joseph was having a hard time believing that Mary was a virgin. Yes, he had the assurance of an angel that this was true, but how could it be? It made no sense. It seemed impossible. And so, to quell any lingering doubts that Joseph might have, the angel brought Scripture to bear on the matter. “Joseph, it may sound incredible, but remember that this was foretold in Scripture.”
The prophecy cited here by the angel is taken from Isaiah 7:14. Ahaz was king of Israel at that time, and he was an ungodly man. The Assyrians were threatening to destroy Judah, but God broke in with a promise. He would not allow Judah to be destroyed. Ahaz did not deserve God’s promise of deliverance, but God gave it to him nonetheless, for it was from Judah that Messiah would arise. Now that promise was about to receive its fulfilment. The virgin had conceived, and soon she would give birth to Messiah, all in accordance with Scripture.
The promise of Christmas is the promise that God keeps His Word. Is there any need for Christians to be nervous about global warming, global annihilation, or global destruction of the church? No, for God keeps His Word. His people will be saved! He has a plan—to save a multitude from every nation, people and tongue—and nothing will thwart that plan.
Be encouraged that no sin is too big to be forgiven. It matters not how grievous your sins are, for the Saviour is gracious. The promise is firm: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Romans 10:9). You have God’s Word on it.
The Promise of Strength
The final aspect of the promise of Christmas is that it is a promise of strength. “Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS” (vv. 24–25). We learn here that, as we submit to God’s Son, we are empowered to serve and to stand.
These verses prove the statement earlier that Joseph was a “just” man. He was not just only in the sense of being morally upright, but also in the sense of being justified before God. The proof of his justness is that he obeyed God. The angel told him to continue with his proposed marriage to Mary, and he did so. The angel told him that Mary must remain a virgin until the birth of her son, and he obeyed. The angel told him to call the child Jesus and he did so.
I want to suggest that it took a tremendous amount of moral strength for Joseph to go through with this plan. We don’t know much about Joseph outside of this passage. We are given a little further insight into his character in Luke’s account, where Joseph has Jesus circumcised, and later takes his family to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish feasts. After that, we read nothing more of Joseph, which has led many theologians to conclude that he probably died quite early on in Jesus’ life. But what the text of Scripture does reveal about Joseph is enlightening. Clearly, he was a man who obeyed God. As he submitted to God’s Word, he was empowered to do what God expected of him.
The promise of Christmas is that our predicaments can be overcome for the glory of God by the grace of God. Perhaps you are afraid of openly bowing in obedience to Christ because of what your friends might say. Perhaps you are afraid that you will be mocked at work if you turn to Christ. Perhaps you are afraid that you will be isolated by family if you commit to Christ. But let me encourage you that the grace of God is powerful enough to help you overcome that peer pressure.
I remember my friend Bill calling me in 1980 with the “good news” that he was quitting football. When I asked how that was good news, he said, “Because things are coming right spiritually.” He said that he had come to the realisation that he was failing in many areas, and he believed it was time for him to return to our hometown and begin serving in his local church. He had a full scholarship based on his football expertise, and when he told his coach that he was quitting the team in order to more effectively serve Christ, the coach simply shook his head in disbelief and walked away. How do you explain such courage? Because Bill was big and muscular? No, because he had the Spirit of Christ.
I shudder to think of the numbers of souls who will inhabit the lake of fire because of fear of man. The first category of those cast into the lake of fire, as defined in Revelation 21:8, are “the fearful.” Thankfully, Joseph was not fearful, and thus we can be quite sure that he is not amongst those suffering eternal torment in hell. Let us take seriously the words of Jesus: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
Believer, the promise of Christmas is that, with God, all things are possible. Have you been praying for years for the salvation of a loved one? Then be encouraged by the promise of Christmas: With God, all things are possible. Have you been praying for the grace to overcome a sinful habit? Be encouraged that, with God, all things are possible. Have you been praying for a restored relationship? Be encouraged that, with God, all things are possible. Are you praying for love, joy or peace? With God all things are possible. God’s grace overcomes all obstacles!
As you ponder this passage, may it be a fruitful reminder of the promise of Christmas. May the promise of Christmas fill you with biblical hope, which is nothing less than a promise with a guaranteed fulfilment. Thank God that we have a Saviour who saves His people from their sins.