The Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes

March 3, 2022 at 10:15 PM

This year, we have introduced the topic of hermeneutics. So far, we have mentioned how Matthew 1:1 is a link back to the structure of Genesis (again, you can find that article here; if you have not already, take a look at this very helpful follow-up article about practical hermeneutics here). One of the most fascinating aspects of the New Testament is its connections to the Old Testament. Matthew in particular loads the first two chapters of his Gospel with Old Testament quotations, allusions, and imagery. Matthew 1:1’s connection to Genesis is only the beginning of Matthew’s argument. In this article, we will seek to pull out Matthew’s Old Testament connections in Matthew 1:18-2:12. This is a very familiar “Christmas Story” to us all, so let’s endeavour to look at the Nativity on a deeper level.


Matthew 1:18-19: Joseph the Just Man

Matthew is famously focused on Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father. His genealogy of Jesus (1:2-17)follows the line of Joseph. In discussing Joseph, Matthew includes a curious detail that may be easy to glance over when we’re reading our Bibles. “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly,” (Matt. 1:19). All Matthew had to tell us here was that Joseph was unwilling to put Mary to shame. If this is true, then we already know that Joseph is a just man; we don’t need Matthew to tell us. But Matthew tells us anyway. Why might this be?

We can stretch back all the way to the Old Testament prophets. While the Christmas Story in Matthew is known and read by many, the prophets, sadly, are too often neglected. Yet we cannot fully understand Matthew unless we first understand the prophets. Consider Matthew’s statement that Joseph is a just man. Isaiah 9:7 prophesies about a coming Child, saying that He will be “on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore,” (Isa. 9:7). Notice the word justice. It sounds similar to Jeremiah 23:5, which says, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land,” (Jer. 23:5). Like Isaiah, Jeremiah is focused on a descendant of David who reigns with justice and righteousness. That Joseph is a just man tells us that he is in the line of the coming just King. Matthew is going to argue that Joseph’s “son” – this Jesus – is that just King promised from the Old Testament. Matthew’s inclusion of Joseph being a “just man” is actually building his argument further that Jesus is the promised Messiah!


Matthew 1:20-25: The Virgin and Immanuel

Matthew moves from the Messiah-like justice of Joseph to quoting a famous passage in Isaiah 7. In chapter 7 verse 14, Isaiah prophesies that “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel,” (Isa. 7:14; for those interested, the Wordsmiths released a previous article about this prophecy here). Matthew demonstrates the fulfillment of this prophecy in the birth of Jesus Christ. Yet, there are three key implications of Matthew citing this prophecy.

First, Matthew is connecting to Genesis again. Genesis 3:15, to which Matthew has already referenced through the first verse in his Gospel, says that the Seed of the woman will crush the serpent. The focus on the woman here speaks to the uniqueness of this Seed, and even may imply a virgin birth. Matthew is strategically quoting Isaiah 7:14 first, since he is using it to relate also to Genesis.

Second, Matthew is concerned about names. He tells us that Immanuel means God with us. He also tells us, in 1:21, that the Child’s name shall be Jesus – “for he will save his people from their sins,” (Matt. 1:21). Jesus means “Yahweh saves.” Thus, the implications of Matthew calling the Child Immanuel and Jesus are huge. This Child is Yahweh incarnate come to take away the sins of His people. In Hosea 11, it is prophesied that Yahweh Himself would settle Israel in their homes (Hos. 11:11). While we will, God willing, have opportunity to examine Hosea 11 in a future article, it is important to see that Matthew is proclaiming, through Jesus’ very name, that He will fulfill Yahweh’s promise to spiritually restore Israel to God (by taking away her sins) and physically restore Israel to God (by bringing her back to the promised land).

Finally, Matthew wants us to have Isaiah in mind. Later on, we will see how the theology of Isaiah 11 and 12 is helpful in understand Matthew’s arguments. It is a good mental note to see that Matthew is getting his readers aware of Isaiah’s prophecy early in his Gospel.

In summary, then, Matthew has connected us back to both Genesis and Isaiah (especially chapters 7-12) to demonstrate that this Jesus is the promised Seed, born of the virgin, who is Yahweh incarnate to take away the sins of Israel and restore her back to God.


Matthew 2:1-12: The Magi and the Star

Matthew 2 contains the famous account of “We Three Kings from Orient Are.” Despite the fact that these men likely weren’t kings and we don’t know their exact number, this text still makes for a rousing Christmas carol… and more Old Testament connections, of course! One thing we do know about the Magi is that they are Gentiles. In the Old Testament, Psalm 72 foretells the coming of Gentiles to bring gifts to the King: “May the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” (Ps. 72:10b-11). Matthew is pointing us to the fact that this little Boy is that King who will not only receive the worship of the Magi, but, one day, all kings and all nations.

The Magi, however, do not stand as the sole objects of fame in this chapter. The “star of Bethlehem” receives a fair chunk of the attention as well. The Magi see “his star” (i.e. the star of the king of the Jews; Matt. 2:2) and follow as it rests over where Jesus was living (Matt. 2:9-10). Two rich chapters of the Old Testament often unknown (perhaps because of their placement deep within the Pentateuch) are Numbers 23 and 24. In light of the fame of Balaam’s talking donkey, Balaam’s four oracles appear far less exciting. There is much to be said about Numbers 23 and 24, though, especially in relation to Matthew 2 and even Hosea 11, which Matthew references later in chapter 2. We don’t have time for all of that in this article, though we would be amiss if we did not point out Numbers 24:17. “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth,” (Num. 24:17b). Balaam is foretelling the coming of a King here – a King who will crush the forehead of pagan nations (this imagery reminds us of Genesis 3:15 in which the Seed bruises the Serpent’s head). Matthew, via referencing this star, is pointing us back to Balaam’s oracles. He is proclaiming Christ to be this coming King![1]

As we close our look at the Magi and the star, it would be profitable for us to see where the Old Testament ties these two ideas together. Matthew has already referenced Isaiah 7, so we should not be surprised to find star imagery in Isaiah as well. Chapter 60 begins, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. … And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising,” (Isa. 60:1, 3). Later, Isaiah 60 explicitly prophesies, “All those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD,” (Isa. 60:6b). In the Person of Jesus Christ, God’s glory has come to earth. It has risen upon Israel! The nations, bringing gifts of gold and frankincense, have come to behold this Light. Indeed, the promised Messiah – Yahweh incarnate – has come to Israel. Matthew is using Old Testament imagery to demonstrate that the anticipated Seed has arrived at last. God has visited His people; hope has come for those in exile!


What Does This Mean for Me?

Perhaps you are wondering why these Old Testament connections can be important. Isn’t it enough to know that God the Son humbled Himself and took on flesh to die for us? Why should we take time to analyze all these details? I offer three reasons:

1. God is a God of detail. He has not promised us simplicity. The beauty of the Gospel is that it is simple enough for young ones to understand, yet there is complexity in God’s Word for the greatest scholars to study for years and years and never mine all its depths. God has given us minds to think and hearts which can understand – let us delve into His Word to uncover the details He has left for us to uncover!

2. Matthew is making a point. He didn’t make these Old Testament connections by accident. If we want to understand Matthew the way he expects us to understand him, we need to know our Old Testament. We cannot fully and properly understand the message of Matthew unless we grasp his use of the Old Testament.

3. The Seed has come. Without diving into the Old Testament, we lose sight of the fact that Jesus is coming after thousands of years of anticipation! We lose sight of the fact that He is not only for Israel, but has also come that Gentiles may see His light and worship Him. We are Gentiles. The Old Testament has promised that the Messiah would rule over us as well. Let us, with the Magi, find joy in knowing that the King of the Jews is also the King of the world. Let us worship our blessed Saviour, and all the more fully, both for His incarnation 2,000 years ago and for His coming earthly dominion when He shall rule from Sea to Sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. Let us look forward to the coming time of restoration, under Messiah, together.



[1] It is especially important to keep Numbers 24 in mind for a later discussion of Matthew 2:15 and Hosea 11:1. While the connection to the star may appear small now, Matthew’s overarching connection to Numbers 24 becomes no small matter as chapter 2 unfolds.