The Birthday of the King Back to all sermons

Date: September 13, 2013

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Series: The Gospel of Matthew

Category: Gospel of Matthew

Scripture: Matthew 1:18–2:23

Synopsis: Christmas in September? Find out why the Evangelical Community Church of Abu Dhabi was singing Christmas carols in September in this message entitled The Birthday of the King, and what we learn about the birth of Christ and its significance from Matthew 1:18-2:23.


Merry Christmas! And no, I haven’t lost my mind or my calendar! We are celebrating the birth of Christ today (September 13) for several reasons. For one, there is nothing in the Scriptures to give us any clue as to exactly when Jesus was born. December 25 is actually a very arbitrary date for celebration, selected long after the fact for political and religious reasons, not for reasons of historical accuracy. So, who knows, maybe Jesus was born on September 13. The second reason we are celebrating is because the events of Jesus birth and the significance of his birth are much too important to be confined to just one short season of the year. The third reason we are celebrating Christ’s birth and singing Christmas songs in September is because we are working our way through the Gospel of Matthew, and today we are studying Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 1-2; and we can’t study the story of Jesus’ birth without singing Christmas songs and doing a little celebrating. And there is an added benefit to celebrating Christmas in September. We can really focus on the spiritual significance of the events without being distracted by presents, big meals and fat guys in red suits.

This is the second message in our series on the Gospel of Matthew. Last week I compared the four gospels to four viewpoints or perspectives on the same majestic mountain. The way the four gospels handle the account of Jesus’ birth is a classic example of the gospels’ distinctives. Two of the gospel writers (Mark and John) make no reference to the events of the birth of Jesus at all. Matthew and Luke both devote significant space to the story, yet their accounts contain very little in the way of overlap. There is no contradiction; their accounts simply narrate a different set of facts, a different viewpoint on the events. Luke tells the story from Mary’s point of view and makes relatively little mention of Joseph. Matthew tells the story from Joseph’s point of view and makes relatively little mention of Mary. Luke tells us about the shepherds and their experience, while Matthew tells us about the wise men (or magi). Both writers are accurate in what they present, but each selects the events they include with a particular message or theological point in mind which they are seeking to establish.

As we said last time, Matthew was a Jew writing with a primarily Jewish audience in mind. He had one burning ambition as he wrote. That was to persuade his fellow Jews that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. He began his Gospel by recounting Jesus’ genealogy, establishing the fact that Jesus was qualified, as a son of David and a son of Abraham, to fulfill God’s promises to those two great heroes of the Jewish faith: promises of an offspring of Abraham who would bless the nations and of an offspring of David who would sit on David’s throne.

This second set of promises to David now begins to form the focal point of Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew’s account will now focus on painting a powerful portrait of Jesus as the Son of David and therefore the promised King of the Jews.

Let’s pick up the story. The record of Jesus’ genealogy left us hanging with a pressing question. After faithfully using a standard genealogical format of “Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob, etc.” Matthew departs from the formula in verse 16 when he comes to Joseph whom he identifies, not as the father of Jesus, but as “the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born.” Why the change in wording? How can Jesus be born of Mary and yet not be the son of Joseph? And if it is so, what is the significance of these facts? These are the questions that Matthew sets out to answer in Matthew 1:18-25:

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

Several things emerge in this part of the story. First of all, Matthew declares the facts of Jesus’ miraculous birth. He was conceived in the womb of the virgin, Mary by a miraculous act of the Holy Spirit. But in an intriguing twist, the story is told from the perspective of Joseph and it is a very human story, as he agonizes over the report that his fiancée is pregnant – and he knows that he is not the father. Joseph is described as a man of integrity, who wants to do the righteous thing, and yet a man of compassion who also seeks to extend grace to Mary by acting privately. I should point out that by Jewish marriage customs, a betrothal or engagement was legally binding; that even though the couple had not yet come together and the marriage was not yet consummated, the engagement could not be broken except by an official decree of divorce.

Another feature of the story, both in this chapter and the one to follow, is the active involvement of angels through the medium of dreams. This was also a feature of the story which would have been highly significant to Matthew’s Jewish readers, who put great emphasis on angels as God’s agents and on dreams as one of the primary ways God communicated with human beings. By including the account of the angel’s activity, Matthew is highlighting the divine elements of the story; that God is involved in all aspects of Jesus’ birth.

In this section, we also see Matthew introduce a formula that will become a regular feature of his Gospel. It is the prophetic fulfillment formula that he uses in verse 22: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken… With slight variations in wording, Matthew will use this formula repeatedly in his account as he continually seeks to persuade his readers that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. This use of the formula in verse 22 is just the first of five such references in the birth narrative alone.

In the first one, the prophecy he refers to is taken from Isaiah 7:14. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel. This prophecy and its fulfillment has sparked a great deal of debate. Students of the Hebrew language tell us that the Hebrew word used in Isaiah can also be translated “young woman” without reference to her virginity. They will also point out that in the original prophecy in Isaiah, there was a fulfillment that took place in Isaiah’s life time, and that the “young woman” referred to was either the wife of Isaiah himself, or of King Ahaz. This is all true. But it simply demonstrates a common feature of Old Testament prophecies, in which there was a dual aspect to the prophecy; a near fulfillment and a distant one. In this case, the near fulfillment was the birth of a child in Isaiah’s time and a far one, pointing to the coming Messiah. As far as the word itself, the Greek word that was used to translate Isaiah 7:14, and which is used in the quotation by Matthew, is a word which clearly speaks to the virginity of the young woman. This is certainly the interpretation that Matthew puts on the prophecy, and which he takes pains to demonstrate in both his wording of the genealogy and his account of Jesus’ birth. Jesus Christ (Messiah) was born of a virgin just as the Scripture prophesied.

The other thing that Matthew shows in his account is the establishing of Jesus’ legal credentials as a son of David by right of adoption by Joseph. Did you notice how the angel addressed Joseph in verse 20? “Joseph, son of David…” When Joseph took Mary as his wife, he took her under his protection and under his name, along with any children she would bear. And by Jewish custom, it was the right of the father to pronounce the name of his son, so when Joseph confers the name of Jesus on the child, he is acting in the role of the legal father. Jesus’ legal status is therefore established as a son of David, and therefore qualified to sit on David’s throne.

Along with this, of course, is the incredible significance of the name given in the prophecy: Immanuel. God with us. By virtue of the virgin birth, God in human flesh. Jesus, fully God and fully man. The miracle of the Incarnation.

Let’s move on to the next part of the story; the story of the wise men or magi:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6 “ ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

This part of the story raises many questions in our minds. Who were these mysterious “wise men”? The Greek word is “magi”. Best scholarship indicates that they were scholars well-versed in astrology, religion and prophecy. Where did they come from? Some speculation relates them to Babylon, which was a center for such studies, but all we are really told is that they came from the East. What was the star they followed? Several natural explanations have been proposed, including a comet, an unusual convergence of planets in the heavens, or a supernova. All such theories are highly speculative. Of course, another explanation is simply that this was a unique, supernatural phenomenon, sent by God to guide these spiritually sensitive individuals to Bethlehem.

What is of greater significance to Matthew (and I believe the reason he includes the wise men in his account) is their inquiry when they arrived in Jerusalem: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” Remember the focus of Matthew’s portrait of Jesus: He is the King of the Jews. This is the first use of the title in the Gospel. And isn’t it ironic that is spoken by these Gentile wise men who came from the East?

The questions stirred up King Herod. There are several rulers in history who shared the name Herod and who are referred to in Scripture. You practically have to keep a scorecard to keep them all straight as you read the Bible. This man was the most notorious of them all: Herod the Great. He was actually not a Jew, but an Idumean, a descendant of Esau, and a pretender to the throne in Jerusalem, placed there by the Romans. He was an exceedingly violent man, fiercely jealous of his throne. He executed several of his own sons and numerous others whom he regarded as a threat to his rule. So when he hears that a rival king has been born, his jealousy is aroused.

But this is what is intriguing to me. When he hears mention of a king, he assembles the Jewish leaders and scholars. And what does he ask them? “Where is the Christ to be born?” He knew the Hebrew scriptures prophesied a coming king, a coming descendant of David; and he refers to him by this title: Christ, the Anointed One. In his mind and understanding, the Christ and the King of the Jews were one and the same.

We also find that the Jewish scholars had a ready answer. They knew their Old Testament prophecies. “They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea” And they go on to cite the specific prophecy, found in Micah 5:2:

“ for so it is written by the prophet; 6 “ ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ”

This is the second prophetic fulfillment Matthew includes in his birth narrative. It is the clearest of them all. It is fitting that the “son of David” should be born in the “city of David”; Bethlehem. It was not a big place; probably only 1000 to 2000 people in Jesus’ time. The prophet Micah wrote long after David’s time and he prophesied about another ruler who would come from Bethlehem to shepherd the people of Israel. These Jewish scholars also combined the title of Christ/Messiah with that of a coming king or ruler. And they pointed Herod, and therefore the wise men, toward Bethlehem.

As the wise men made their way toward Bethlehem (which, by the way, is located only about 5 miles from Jerusalem) the star once again appeared to them and guided them to the house where Jesus and his parents were staying. There they bowed in worship and offered him gifts from their treasure boxes: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Frankincense and myrrh are both products of the Arabian Peninsula. You can still find them for sale in the traditional markets of this region. By the way, the tradition of “three wise men” is based solely on the mention of the three different types of gift they offered. What is more significant to Matthew’s account is that these are all gifts fit for a king, very similar to the gifts that the Queen of Sheba brought to King Solomon on her visit. Matthew is again emphasizing the royal nuances of the birth of Jesus.

In chapter 1, Matthew has established Jesus’ genealogical credentials as Messiah. He was a son of David. In chapter 2 he has now established his geographical credentials as Messiah. He was born in Bethlehem, the city of David.

The remaining three prophecies that Matthew cites in his account are more obscure and even problematic for the interpreter. They illustrate another feature of Biblical prophecy. I believe there were some prophecies which could be clearly understood and interpreted ahead of time. I believe there were others that God used to seed the Old Testament Scriptures – these were intended to be used primarily after the fact – for us to be able to look back at and marvel: “See how God had it all planned out from the very beginning.”> (This section was not included in the audio recording)

Let’s continue reading:

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

(Not included in the audio recording)

Let’s look at the next section:

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

But what about the prophecy? It was given by Jeremiah. It was a description of Rachel, used symbolically of the mothers of Israel, weeping as the nation was taken into captivity. It was a prophecy of the continued suffering of the nation as they were oppressed by their enemies. That oppression was continuing into the present day under the brutality of the tyrannical Herod. Yet there is an underlying note of hope here. Even as Rachel weeps for her children, the whole prophecy in Jeremiah 31 is actually one of great hope, that God is going to redeem his people and deliver them from the hand of their enemies and bring them back.> (Not included in the audio recording)

Then there is another prophecy cited. This is the most difficult one of all.

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

There was a decided geographical bias in Jesus’ day. Jerusalem and its environs were seen as the happening place, the place of influence and sophistication. Galilee was suspect because of Gentile influences, but also because it was a kind of country backwater, inhabited by rural, unsophisticated country bumpkins. If we take such disparaging remarks about Jesus’ home area, we can also find a number of Old Testament prophecies which predict that when Messiah comes, he would not be respected and his background would be discounted. I quote only one such example from Isaiah 53:1-2, showing his unpromising beginnings and origins:

Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 2 For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; >(Not included in the audio recording)

Prophecies aside, Matthew has now established Jesus’ dual geographical identity: Nazareth and Bethlehem. Raised in the rural backwater of Galilee in the little village of Nazareth, an unexpected and unpromising place for a king to grow up. Called a Nazarene - and yet he was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, as prophecy required.

There is one more name revealed in this passage that I have saved for last. It was the name that the angel gave to Joseph in Matthew 1:21: You shall call his name Jesus. I have saved this one for last, because this name not only reveals his identity. It also proclaims his mission and ministry: the reason he came to earth, the reason he was born.

The name Jesus is actually the Greek form or transliteration of the Hebrew name Joshua or Yah-shua which means Yahweh is salvation or Yahweh saves. This then gives us the context to understand the rest of the angel’s words. You shall call his name Jesus for he will save his people from their sins. There it is: You shall call his name “Yahweh saves” because he will save his people.

The Jews were waiting for their Messiah, their king. We might even say that they were waiting for a Savior who would save his people. But this is where a disconnect occurred. Many of them did not realize or understand the greatest dilemma from which they needed to be saved. They thought their primary problems were political and economic oppression at the hands of the Romans. They were looking for a military or political hero to lead them to victory and to freedom. They failed to comprehend that their greatest dilemma was an internal one. Their greatest enemy was the sin in their own hearts.

This is why the words of the angel are so significant. You shall call his name “Yahweh saves” for he will save his people…from their sins.

The Messiah has come. The King has come. The promised Offspring of Abraham and Offspring of David. He has been born of a virgin in Bethlehem in Judea just like the prophets foretold. He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. Call his name Immanuel – God with us. And call his name Jesus for he will save his people from their sins.

And so I say to each one of you here this morning: Do you know this one they named Jesus? Have you met him? Have you put your faith in him as your Savior from your sins? Because for you, as for the Jews, your greatest dilemma is not emotional, physical, relational or financial. Your greatest enemy is not “out there” it is “in here”.

Your greatest need lies in the fact that you are a sinner. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23). And your sin has built a barrier between you and God and brought you under his condemnation. The wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23)

The only answer to that dilemma is Jesus. Jesus paid the penalty for our sins through his death on the cross, so that we can be forgiven and have eternal life. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Call his name Jesus…for he will save his people from their sins.

Today, on this rather random day in September, we are celebrating a birthday. It is the birthday, not of a king, but the birthday of The King. What should our response be?

Let me quickly mention three as I close:

The first response is repentance and faith. This is the implication behind the name Jesus. He came to save us from our sins. If want that salvation, we must first acknowledge our sin and put our faith in Jesus as Savior. If you have never done that, that is the first necessary response to Matthew’s message.

The second response is the one we see modeled by the wise men when they saw the child. They fell down and worshiped him. The child that was born in Bethlehem is not only a king. He is the King. He is the King of Kings. He alone is worthy of our worship. Son of God and Son of Man, the one who has been given the name that is above every name, and at whose name every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

The final response is a logical deduction from this fact. If he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, we should obey him. Here we can learn a lesson from the example of faithful Joseph in the account of Jesus’ birth. Whenever he received a command from heaven, narrated to him by the angel of the Lord, we are told that “he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” Without question or debate, even in the middle of the night, “he rose…” and did as he was told. He obeyed. May God help us to do the same.


  1. What did you learn from the message last Friday? Were there any surprises?
  2. What questions do you still have arising from Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth?
  3. From this story, what can we deduce about Joseph and the kind of man he was?
  4. Why is Matthew 1;21 so significant to our understanding of this passage and the rest of Matthew’s Gospel? How does this compare or contrast to much gospel/evangelistic preaching today?
  5. Does it matter whether we believe in the virgin birth of Jesus? Why or why not?
  6. Discuss the three responses to the story of Jesus’ birth (Repentance/faith, Worship, Obedience) What are some specific ways we can manifest these responses in our lives this week?