What is going on in Matthew 1:22-23?

It’s so easy to get through Christmas hearing the familiar story over again but not really being able to pause and give time to think about it in any detail. So that’s what I’d like to do this morning.


So often when we’re reading the Bible, we find rabbit holes – little distractions and nagging questions that it’s easy to just ignore. And sometimes when we try to explore them they don’t really go anywhere. And sometimes, like in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland or the original Matrix film, we get to something amazing. And sometimes, like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland or the sequels to the Matrix, we start getting somewhere but in the end we still don’t seem to get any coherent answers. Hint for preachers – don’t bother preaching those ones!

Let’s look at two quick rabbit holes from this familiar passage, which hopefully help us to see the Christmas story in far more technicolour.

First, what’s going on with this prophecy from Isaiah. “All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: The Virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means God with us.”?

When there’s an Old Testament reference like that, it’s always good to look it up. And in this case you get to the other passage we had read, from Isaiah 7. And quite quickly looking at the passage, you realise there’s something odd going on. It’s the time of the slightly obscure Syrio-Ephraimite coalition of 735BC. Two neighbouring countries were ganging up on God’s people, their king was unfaithful to God and they were really scared. So Isaiah says this prophecy, but it looks very much as if he’s talking about how they will know that God’s people will be safe in 735BC. We’re told that before he grows up, both those countries will be destroyed. And if you do some reading around, you find that the word for virgin means “young woman of marriagable age”, and might well be talking about Isaiah’s fiance, who he married and then has a son with pretty soon afterwards. So it doesn’t look like it’s talking about Jesus at all.

Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say. And if you’re a sceptical Bible scholar you stop there and conclude that Matthew didn’t really know what he was going. But if you want to dig a bit deeper, it gets more interesting still. Because that’s in Isaiah 7, and in Isaiah 8 he does indeed have a son, but then he describes his family as signs and symbols and in Isaiah 9 he predicts the coming of a more glorious child who won’t just be a sign of the destruction of two enemies, but who will himself be king of kings forever. You know “Unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” and so on. So what is fulfilled partly in Isaiah’s new wife becoming pregnant and them having a son is fulfilled far more gloriously in the future with a child born of a real virgin who will reign forever.

And then if you start to chase the other times Matthew quotes or alludes to the Old Testament, you see there’s something similar going on. For example, in Matthew 2:14, the prophecy he quotes from the Old Testament doesn’t look like a prophecy at all – it’s a quote saying something that God had done in the past when he brought Israel out of Egypt.

This is what’s going on. Some of the prophecies of Jesus in the Old Testament are clear, like Isaiah 9. But a lot of them are much more like what we see in other great stories of similar length. What do you want in the ending to an epic story? Star Wars 9, say (no spoilers please) or Avengers Endgame. Avengers Endgame, the highest grossing film of all time, was the 22nd film in the series. Some of the events in the film were directly predicted by things that people said in previous films. But most of them were foreshadowed by them, Endgame picks up loose ends that had been left lying around and brings them together to a satisfying conclusion and a comparatively happy ending. Watching it you realise that many of the earlier films must have had this ending in mind. In that sense, it fulfilled them. That’s what Matthew shows Jesus as doing with the whole Old Testament, except of course that folk had to wait 700 years after Isaiah was written for the climax! So what do we see from this rabbithole? Jesus is the climax of the story – he is the fulfilment of the Old Testament in far more ways than we expect, and when we read the OT rightly, we do so looking for echoes of what God will do in Jesus.

Second rabbit hole – why is Jesus born of a virgin? The Hebrew in Isaiah might be ambiguous. Why would it need to be ambiguous if it was just talking about Isaiah’s son? But the Greek of Matthew and Luke isn’t, and it picks up and fulfils the whole theme of women who can’t have children becoming mothers of significant figures in the Bible. But more than that, it shows that Jesus is a man but he isn’t just a man. He’s not, like the Buddha or Mohammed, a normal-ish bloke who attains some special state maybe at his baptism or whenever. Right from the start, he is both human and divine. Nor is he a cross between God and people – he is both fully human and fully divine, right from the start. The same God who created the universe became a powerless human fetus. The God who spoke stars into being became a wordless baby. The one who knows the secrets of every heart had to be taught to burp and sleep and feed.

No other religion contains anything as outrageous as this. Some religions, like animism or Star Wars have a conception of a life-force filling the universe and so it makes sense that there might be people or objects where that force is particularly concentrated. But it’s only ever a force, not a personal god. Some religions have lesser gods, who are very much part of creation, like Thor from the Avengers films or the Roman and Greek gods, and they can become human but they aren’t all-powerful and sovereign. Other religions, like Islam and Judaism, have all-powerful sovereign personal gods, but it is almost blasphemous even to imagine the possibility that those gods might become incarnate, might become vulnerable.

JI Packer puts it like this:

God became man; the divine Son became a Jew; the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child… The babyhood of the Son of God was a reality. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is as fantastic as is this truth of the Incarnation.

And that needs the virgin birth. If he was not born of a woman, just “found” like Superman, he would not be truly human. But if he was conceived in the usual way, then he would just be part of creation like everyone else. Jesus is utterly unique. Why did he do it? So that he could be “God with us” – fully God so that even though God is all-powerful, sovereign and amazingly far beyond us, we can really know what he is like, fully human so that he is really with us, so that the barrier between humanity and God has been forever broken down, so he’s not just a distant God on a cloud who watched us from afar, but who enters into human experience, who knows what it’s like to suffer and to mourn, who knows what family breakdown is like and the joy of celebrating milestones. So that he is not just a God who knows the secrets of our hearts and everything we do but has walked for 30 years in our shoes, who knows what it is like to be us and who loves us and has compassion on us. Jesus who took on human nature and came to be like us so that he could one day take us to be with him and to become like him in his eternity and perfection and joy.

Now there’s sometimes an objection to the virgin birth from people who just think it sounds implausible, as if Matthew and Luke didn’t understand where babies come from. Yes, they knew, of course they knew; the human race was doing just fine at reproducing for thousands of years before modern medical science. They knew that virgins don’t have babies. But that’s the point. They make this claim because it’s utterly remarkable that this one did. And if their story is correct – that the eternal God who created the universe decided to become fully human, then of course he could arrange for this virgin to become pregnant and creating whatever DNA was needed for that to happen.

So what does all of this mean for us today?

There will be some folk here, there usually are, who wouldn’t say they follow Jesus as God. And what I’d say to you is “welcome”. You’re always welcome here. Keep on coming. But don’t you think this is worth checking out? This story, written by dozens of people over a thousand years that hangs together so perfectly, where a man can come and completely fulfil a story and prophecies from 700 years before, this man who made claims like no-one else and then lived them out, who offers us joy beyond our imaginings and hope beyond our fears, who into our darkness and death offers to bring his unquencheable light and invincible life.

So what I want to ask this Christmas is this. Isn’t it worth checking out his claims? Isn’t it worth seeing if Jesus isn’t just the original inspiration for the festive season but the very meaning of life? So go along to an Alpha course near you, or come along to a Bible-teaching church and find out more about what God has done.

And for those of us who do follow Jesus, do we know the comfort of God with us this Christmas? Do we know that whatever painful memories and disappointment the season brings, God is with us and in Jesus brings his light that can never be overcome by the darkness? That however deep our experience, he has entered into it, and will bring us fully into the presence of God with great joy.

Do we know the excitement of going deeper in God’s word, of finding how every story whispers Jesus’ name and helps us see his glory more and more brightly?

Do we know the wonder and amazement of Christmastime – that it truly is the greatest story ever told; the beginning of the greatest victory ever won? Will we sing the old words of the great carols with a little more zest and excitement and joy and let Christmas lift our eyes a little higher to the wonder and joy and amazement when, just as Mary saw Jesus that first Christmas, we will see Jesus face to face?

[this is from a sermon preached on 22nd December 2019]

Quirinius and the Census

A repost from a few years ago….
I did a talk today on “Has History Disproved Christmas?” The answer, of course, was “No!” But here are a few of my notes about the census problem.

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
Luke 2:1-5, NIV

Bock identifies five problems people cite when it comes to this passage.

  1. There was no known empire-wide census under Augustus
  2. No Roman census would have required Joseph to go to Bethlehem to register
  3. Israel under Herod wasn’t officially part of the Roman Empire until Herod died in 4BC
  4. Josephus wrote that the first Roman census was under Quirinius in AD6, and that caused a revolt
  5. Quirinius wasn’t governor of Syria until 10 years after Herod died. Herod died in 4BC, Quirinius became governor of Syria in AD6.

Here are some answers to those problems, adapted from Bock…

1) The Romans liked doing censuses because they liked taxing people. We know there was ongoing census activity across the Roman Empire at the time of Herod.

3) We also know that vassal kings (like Herod) did censuses too when Rome told them to. There’s even evidence that Jews under Herod were paying Roman taxes (and hence had been census-ed).

If there was a census for Roman taxation and at Roman command under Herod, it makes sense that…

2 & 4) If Herod did a census (before 4BC), he might have done it Jewish-style rather than Roman-style. A Jewish-style census could well involve going to ancestral towns, especially if Joseph owned land in Bethlehem, as he might well do if descended from David. [Incidentally, Joseph owning land in Bethlehem could also explain the different genealogies in Matthew and Luke – one might be the genealogy attached to the land…] A Jewish-style census wouldn’t have caused riots like the Roman-style one in AD6 and so is less likely to be mentioned by Josephus, who is the only non-Biblical historian describing Palestine in that period.

It’s also clear that the census Luke is talking about isn’t the one in AD6. For example, a census after 4BC wouldn’t have required Joseph to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem – after 4BC they were in different provinces. Luke also knows about the AD6 census – he mentions it and the rebellion in Acts 5:37.

So what about Quirinius? Luke 2:2 reads “This was the first census that took place whilea Quirinius was governor of Syria.” But the NIV has a footnote saying “Or this census took place before…”

The word in question is πρωτος – dictionaries define it as “first, before, greatest”. So it could be talking about the census BEFORE the one where Quirinius was governor of Syria (the one in AD6 which caused all the trouble). We’ve got the same issue in English with the word “prototype”, which is from πρωτος. Is the prototype of a new car before that car, or the first one?

Literally, the verse reads “this was the first census of Quirinius, governor of Syria.” Qurinius may well have been asked to administer the census by Herod, even though he wasn’t governor of Syria yet. In the same way, we might say “President George W Bush was a notorious drunkard as a young man”, even though he wasn’t president when he was a young man.

In conclusion, these verses don’t seem to provide good reason to doubt the historicity of Luke’s account.

Noah’s Ark and Apologetics

Tim Keller has a great analogy for how apologetics works. He says that the process of someone becoming a Christian is like them driving down a road in a car, when they come across a roadblock which stops them getting any further. The job of apologetics is to clear the roadblock out of the way so that the person can continue on their journey.

One roadblock I seem to find people being stuck at more and more these days is the story of Noah’s Ark. The problem (as it appears to the not-yet-Christian) is that the story is very hard to reconcile with modern science. For example:

  • to cover all the mountains on earth would require the sea level to rise by approx 9km. There isn’t enough “spare” water to do that, and would transform the surface of the planet to be like the abyssal plain.
  • it doesn’t fit with what we observe in terms of distribution of species on Earth. For example, as far as we can tell, kangaroos have only ever lived in Australia. That would make it tricky for Noah to collect them, and also for them to get back to Australia from the Ark (which came to rest in modern Turkey) without settling anywhere else en route.

As far as I can tell, there are four main strategies that could be deployed to deal with this roadblock.

A) Try to go round it instead of dealing with it head on, maybe by putting it in a “questions to deal with later” box. I don’t especially like that strategy, but it’s sometimes useful.

B) Say that the story in the Bible is essentially myth rather than history; it’s a parable of some kind. The problem with this is that the Bible clearly presents it as history of some kind – Peter refers back to it as a historical event, and the characters feature in genealogies. The Bible does contain myth (e.g. the killing of the monster Rahab in Isaiah 51 and Job 26), but it handles it quite differently.

C) Try to contest the interpretation of scientific data. Propose a completely different geography before the flood with a much flatter earth so there might be enough water. Have all the continental drift and plate tectonics happening during the flood, somehow have slow-growing olive trees (needed to produce an olive twig for the dove to find) survive on the abyssal plain, hope the other person doesn’t notice about the kangaroos and doesn’t have access to more paleogeological knowledge than you. The main problem with this is that if it works as an apologetic strategy, it gives them an unhelpful conspiracy theory mindset and gets them obsessed with secondary issues. If it doesn’t work (as on me if I wasn’t a Christian), it makes them think that all Christians are conspiracy theory nut jobs and gets them to write the whole thing off. Somewhere in the middle is getting massively bogged down for ages arguing about scientific minutiae, which is a complete distraction from the main point, which is Jesus, not flood geology. I used to try this approach; it didn’t work.

D) Show that the meaning of the text is broader than the conventional interpretation of it. For example, both the words translated “earth” in the story – erets and adamah can mean either “Earth” (as in the planet) or “land” (as in a country). In fact, both are used of the Earth in the creation narrative in Genesis, and both are used of the Promised Land in the Abraham story in the same book (e.g. Gen 28:13-15). Likewise the phrase “all the high mountains under the heavens” in Gen 7:19 could well mean “all the hills and mountains under the sky as far as the eye can see.” If you read the Noah story, but translating erets as “land”, it still makes perfect sense and doesn’t seem to contradict modern science any more. The author of Genesis deliberately leaves it ambiguous – it could be talking about a local flood, but the way it is told has lots of echoes of the creation story as well. So why haven’t the translators left that option? Probably because the earlier translations translated it as “earth” or “world” and so any new translators going for “land” would appear soft and get loads of flak from the noisy minority of Christians who are keener on holding onto their own interpretation of Scripture than what the Bible actually says.

Last time the question came up was a couple of weeks ago. I tried a potted version of D); the roadblock was cleared in a couple of minutes and the chap commented a week later how impressed he’d been and that he thought there might really be something to the Bible…