Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 1









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Chapter 1

A blessing in disguise (Matt. 1:18–25)

Jesus’ birth afflicts Joseph

When Theodore Roosevelt (“TR”) was a child, his health was so bad that his father had to spend most weekends taking TR to upstate New York to relieve frequent asthma attacks. Such infirmity would have crushed the spirit of many children, but young Theodore began to embrace a life full of rigorous physical challenge and discipline.

As a result, TR became one of the most energetic figures in the world. Indeed, he once spoke for ninety minutes at a political rally after being shot in the side! Defying expectations, what seemed at first to be a health disaster had propelled his life to great heights.

The apostle Matthew used this same pattern — defeat transformed into victory — to describe Christ’s birth in the first Gospel. When Mary, the mother of Jesus, was found to be pregnant, her intended husband Joseph hit bottom. We will see how God turned Joseph’s apparent defeat into victory.

A vital clue to Matthew’s thinking

Before we get into the story of Jesus’ birth, we need to consider how Matthew tells his story. Biblical genealogies may seem boring, yet buried within the Messiah’s genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew lies a set of vital clues to the literary structure for his account of our Lord’s birth. Matthew signaled his intentions by doing something unusual: he included the names of five women in the genealogy of Christ.

To include women in the genealogy deviated from common practice. Luke mentioned only one woman, Mary, in his genealogy, and did it only to make clear that Joseph had no biological role in Jesus’ birth. Matthew oddly mentions Tamar (1:3), Rahab (1:5), Ruth (1:5), Bathsheba — mentioned as “Uriah’s wife” (1:6), the woman who had the adulterous affair with King David — and Mary (1:16).

In chapters 1–3 of this book we will see how these women’s names shine fresh light on the birth and early life of Jesus. The key to understanding what Matthew is doing lies in learning how he uses a Jewish teaching technique known as midrash — from a Hebrew word that means to study or investigate — to add meaning to his brief narrative. To understand Matthew’s story requires several detours to related stories in the Old Testament for comparison.

When you read Matthew’s first two chapters, you find that he wrote a very lean narrative. He provides few details about the momentous events he describes. But Matthew cleverly brings additional material to bear in two ways: 1) by quoting from the Old Testament and 2) by drawing attention to several Old Testament stories having intentional similarities to the story of Jesus. That second technique is midrash.

Far from being an enigma, the women’s names act as signposts toward meaning. Table 1 in the Appendix to this chapter shows how Matthew supplemented certain portions of his narrative with the stories of five women from the Old Testament.

As we consider Christ’s birth, we will follow Matthew’s intentional lead by contrasting the story of Mary and Joseph with the story of Tamar (Matt. 1:3) and her father-in-law Judah from Genesis 38. Tamar is the first woman Matthew named, and so her story adds the first supplemental material to the story of Jesus’ birth. From it we learn more about Joseph’s struggle over the pregnancy of Mary.

Broken promises and a crisis in disguise

The story of Judah and Tamar, who are in the royal line of Christ, contrasts sharply with that of Joseph and Mary because Judah and Tamar did not live as righteous people ought to live. See Table 2 in the Appendix to this chapter for a detailed comparison of their stories with Bible references included.

Judah, the son of the patriarch Jacob, was harmed by Tamar after breaking a pledge to her that she would marry one of his sons. Tamar got her revenge by disguising herself as a prostitute and taking an unannounced trip to seduce Judah, who was on a journey. Worse still, she became pregnant! To Judah’s great shame, his sin was exposed. This was Judah’s crisis, and he threatened Tamar with death.

It’s not a pretty story! The saga of Judah and Tamar reeks with struggle, intrigue, and sin. But, amazingly enough, God used this reversal in Judah’s life to shape him into a better person. In Genesis 44, Judah offered his own life to save his younger brother’s life (Gen. 44:27–34).

It is striking that Matthew intentionally refers to this story to highlight Joseph’s crisis, but he clearly does. Both stories involve men facing crises that relate to the birth of the Messiah; both Tamar and Mary are part of the biological line of Jesus. Judah was an oath-breaker and a man willing to kill. How will Judah compare with Joseph? We will unpack Matthew’s midrash — a form of comparison — and find out.  [See Appendix 1 below for details of this comparison.]

In both accounts God turns defeat into eventual victory. The individual crises of Judah and Joseph were blessings in disguise.

The unwanted child — Jesus

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
(Matthew 1:18–19)

Clearly, Joseph learned about Mary’s pregnancy before hearing the facts of the matter from her. At this point, Matthew leaves much unsaid, but we can get insight by considering Luke’s account (Luke 1:26–56). God sent an angel to inform Mary of her impending pregnancy, and she immediately departed to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah.

Mary’s story resembles Tamar’s story in several respects. First of all, Mary’s unannounced journey led to a conflict. She returned after three months of pregnancy to await her marriage in her father’s house (like Tamar). Her pregnancy then became known, and the crisis hit Joseph with full force. Remember that Joseph had never read Matthew chapter 1!

How would you have felt if you were Joseph? He was a righteous young descendant of David who had selected a godly young woman from among his people. After a three-month journey to Judah, his wife-to-be was pregnant, and he knew the child was not his own. What would you have thought? Surely any of us would have drawn the same conclusion that Joseph did.

Joseph’s dreams of the life he would live with this woman he deeply loved were instantly shattered. His life hit rock bottom, and he himself was probably subjected to ridicule due to Mary’s condition. Feel with Joseph the pain of that terrible moment. Just as Judah mistook Tamar for a common prostitute, Joseph also misjudged Mary as sexually unfaithful. The comparison of the two related stories confirms this conclusion about Joseph even though Matthew does not say it outright. That’s how midrash works.

Joseph demonstrated a compassion for Mary that his counterpart Judah didn’t show for Tamar; Joseph tried to prevent any harm from coming to Mary. The Jews regarded infidelity during engagement as seriously as they did after marriage. As an apparent adulteress, Mary could have received the death penalty, but Joseph took steps to quietly break the engagement.

On the surface Joseph’s story is filled with wrongdoing, tragedy, and defeat, but behind it all stands God, who transforms defeat into victory. He was using Mary and Joseph to accomplish a profound act in bringing salvation to Israel and the world. But the world continually misunderstands what God is doing.

A blessing in disguise

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
(Matthew 1:20–23)

In the midst of disaster, God intervened decisively with Joseph and Mary. The angel urged Joseph to take Mary home as his wife and not to fear the consequences. That action amounted to a legal, public claim that Mary was his wife, in spite of the fact that she was three months pregnant!

The surrounding community doubtless misunder­stood this action. Even though Joseph and Mary would have wanted to maintain a discreet silence, pregnancy cannot be hidden after a certain point. Stories about them were probably already circulating within Nazareth. The angel quieted Joseph’s baseless fears by revealing that Mary’s child had been conceived by the miraculous, creative act of the Holy Spirit.

After predicting the birth of a son, the angel commanded Joseph to name the boy Jesus — a name filled with profound meaning. It is derived from the Hebrew name Yeshua, which means “the Lord saves.” This name reveals the first part of what Jesus came to do; he came to deliver his people from their sins.

Then Matthew explains another name Jesus was given, that reveals another part of his mission: “‘they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’)” (Matt. 1:23).

When we think of Jesus delivering us from our sins, we usually visualize it as happening someday. Certainly Jesus will save us from divine judgment on that day, but we fall short of understanding if we don’t realize that he also came to deliver us from our sins right now!

Immanuel, which means “God with us,” brings out this present aspect. Jesus continually transforms the defeats, struggles, and hardships of our lives into ultimate victory. Jesus is not the God-whom-we-will-see-someday or the God-way-off-there-somewhere; he is God-with-us-right-now!

We may see ourselves as more like Judah than like Joseph, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus will abandon us. His very name tells us he won’t do that. Jesus Christ came into our world not only to resolve our sin problem, but also to transform our current defeats into ultimate victory.

A response of faith

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
(Matthew 1:24–25)

Joseph placed himself squarely within the camp of those who willingly respond to the Lord’s revelation. He showed a readiness to take whatever risks would be involved in receiving Mary and her child into his home. Joseph’s decision cleared Mary from suspicion.

By naming the boy, Joseph legally claimed Jesus as his own — not biologically, but legally. His action both cleared Mary of any wrongdoing and put the responsibility for Mary’s pregnancy squarely on his own shoulders. Demonstrating his righteousness, Joseph followed the Lord’s directives to the letter, trusting him to turn defeat into something good.

A backward glance

In thinking back over the two contrasting stories, we find two very different couples. God had to teach Judah and Tamar the fundamentals of right and wrong. Their story betrays little concern about what God wanted in their lives; their own self-concern was paramount. They belonged in spiritual kindergarten learning basic lessons about life. Still, God used them as part of the lineage of his divine Son.

In the other case, Joseph and Mary most certainly struggled, but their goal was to please God. Both were trying to serve him in baffling circumstances. Through Joseph and Mary, the Father brought about the culmination of his salvation plan.

God’s transforming power permeates both episodes and the lives of all involved. In both cases, defeat turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Lessons for our generation

Perhaps this has been a year of struggle in your life, as it has in mine. Two unexpected operations and a trip to the emergency room have provided more excitement than I wanted. There is no doubt that such experiences are unpleasant. But when we become adopted members of God’s family through faith in Jesus Christ, defeat takes on a promising new element.

1. The Lord wants to use our pain and misfortune to bring about strength, growth, and blessing. To accomplish that purpose, he will get personally involved in our lives. To confirm this in the Bible, see Genesis 50:20; Romans 5:3–5; 8:28; and 1 Peter 2:10–20. Use the following questions to evaluate your own life.

Am I so absorbed with my adversity that I have lost sight of God’s intention to bring blessing?

What has the Lord taught me, or what does he want me to learn from my struggles?

In what ways has God used misfortune in my life to bring change and shape my outlook about myself and others?

Judah couldn’t learn very much about his immoral ways until he suffered a real crisis in his life. He wouldn’t face up to his Canaanite associations, casual fornication, covenant-breaking, and vengeful anger until God brought him up short.

Long ago I felt a certain contempt for people who had personal problems. Inwardly, I put the blame on them. But when I found out that what happened to them could also happen to me, it changed me profoundly. Such an experience allowed me to bring to others the comfort that God brought me in my crisis (see 2 Corinthians chapter 1).

2. In spite of all their sin, the Lord used Judah and Tamar to help accomplish salvation for a lost world. Don’t you feel a bit surprised that the Lord would use people like them as part of the royal line of Jesus Christ?

But that fact is tremendous! It shows us that God can, and will, use believers of all maturity levels to bring about his purposes. The frailty and weakness of man does not hinder the power of God in cutting through obstacles to fulfill his promises. You may consider yourself a spiritual failure. You may be a person like Judah who has been running on the wrong side of the tracks for quite a while, but repentance and confession can change that. The Lord can still use you!

In light of that, can you personally affirm the following statement? God will use me with all my flaws to help carry out his purpose for those around me.

Consider the other side of things for a moment. In the story of Joseph and Mary, God clearly demonstrates his intention to bring even greater blessings into the lives of men and women seeking to live a godly life.

Are you willing to make it your goal to move even closer to the Lord in the days to come?

A final word

My unexpected trip to the emergency room was no picnic, but it led to the “accidental” discovery of a separate medical problem. As a result, my first surgical operation for the year removed a defect that could have threatened my life!

My trip to the ER has proved to be a blessing in disguise. God used it to bring about an important change that might never have happened without the crisis. This experience has taught me that Jesus really lives up to the name Immanuel, “God with us.” Where he is involved, even a crisis bears the promise of grace. Even adversity can be a blessing in disguise.

Coming next week . . .

In Chapter 2 we will see how the Father protected the newborn Jesus from the murderous Herod,  guided the Magi to worship Jesus, and then got the family to safety in Egypt.

Appendix to Chapter 1

Table 1 shows the women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy and the corresponding material in the Old Testament that contains their stories.

Table 1

The Literary Structure of Matthew 1–2


Related Old Testament Story


Tamar (Genesis 38)


Rahab (Joshua 2–6)


Ruth (Book of Ruth)


Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11)


Mary = Miriam (Numbers 12–14)


Table 2 illustrates the kind of comparison that lies at the heart of the midrash technique Matthew used to add background to his brief account about Jesus.

Table 2

Judah and Tamar Compared to Joseph and Mary

Genesis 38 Matthew 1:18–25

A pledge to marry (11)

A pledge to marry (18)

A journey leads to conflict (12-26)

A journey leads to conflict (18)

Tamar seen as prostitute (15)

Mary seen to be unfaithful (18)

Unmarried Tamar pregnant (18)

Unmarried Mary pregnant (18)

Pregnancy revealed (24)

Pregnancy revealed (18)

Judah calls for death (24)

Joseph avoids death penalty (19)

Judah’s plans reversed (25)

Joseph’s plans reversed (20)

Judah affirms Tamar righteous (26)

Joseph affirms Mary righteous

No further sexual contact (26)

No further sexual contact (25)

Copyright © 2011 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

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