The story of Jesus’ life begins with the story of His birth, as told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The Old Testament foretold His coming, revealing specific information about the promised Savior, and in the Gospels we find the fulfillment of the predictions regarding Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, which brought salvation to the world.
When writing their accounts of Jesus’ birth, Matthew and Luke present different aspects and include different events, while at the same time covering much of the same ground and making the same significant points. Matthew’s account focuses on Joseph and his role, while Luke tells the story from Mary’s perspective.
Matthew describes Joseph as a “righteous” man, meaning that he was an observant Jew who kept the laws of God. He was betrothed to a young woman named Mary who “before the marriage took place … became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.”1 In first-century Palestine, betrothal was a period of engagement during which Mary was already considered Joseph’s wife, although they hadn’t yet started living together. It’s during this period that Mary became pregnant.
Luke’s gospel tells us that the angel Gabriel was sent to tell Mary that she had found favor with God:
He came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you! … For you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High … and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”2
This conception is like no other throughout history. Mary becomes pregnant through a creative act of God. We’re not told exactly how this creative act occurred any more than we’re told the details of how God created the world, other than that He spoke it and made it so.
Mary gives her consent when she says, “I am the Lord’s servant! Let it happen as you have said.”3 Fulton Sheen beautifully describes the situation like this:
What is called the Annunciation was actually God asking the free consent of a creature to help Him to be incorporated into humanity. … What He did, therefore, was to ask a woman, representing humanity, freely to give Him a human nature.4
The angel gives Mary a sign that these things will happen: he tells her that her elderly relative, Elizabeth, has also conceived a son. “Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah” to visit Elizabeth who, just as Gabriel said, had also miraculously conceived a son, though she was past childbearing age.5 After staying with Elizabeth for approximately three months, Mary returns home to Nazareth.
Upon her return, she is faced with the obvious problem that she is three months pregnant, and Joseph knows that he isn’t the father. We can only imagine the hurt, pain, sadness, betrayal, and anger that Joseph must have felt as he “thought about these things.”6
If Joseph accused Mary of having committed adultery, the Mosaic law stated that she could be stoned to death.7 But Joseph, “unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”8
It wasn’t possible to have a totally secret divorce, as the writ or certificate of divorce had to be delivered in the presence of two witnesses, and no matter what reason Joseph would have given, everyone would have concluded that adultery was the real reason. By saying Joseph resolved to divorce her quietly, Matthew meant that Joseph wasn’t going to publicly accuse Mary of adultery. For Joseph, a righteous man who kept the laws of God, divorcing Mary is the right thing to do, but he’s going to be merciful in how he goes about it by not giving adultery as the reason.
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. 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.” When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.9
The message given to him in the dream put an end to thoughts of divorce. The angel tells him that the child is from the Holy Spirit, and therefore he doesn’t need to fear that he will be breaking God’s law by marrying her, as no adultery was committed. Joseph then fulfills the second step of marriage by taking Mary into his home as his wife, thus assuming responsibility for Mary and becoming the legal father of the child who is to be born.
Some months after Mary returned from her visit with Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph embarked on a trip to Bethlehem. We’re told that the reason for this trip was that Caesar Augustus had ordered a census, and Jewish custom required Joseph to travel to Bethlehem, his ancestral home, as he was of the house and lineage of King David.
Luke describes how Joseph went from Nazareth, in the province of Galilee, to Bethlehem, a village in Judea six miles from Jerusalem, to be registered, and Mary accompanied him. While they were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to give birth. “And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”10
In the fields around Bethlehem, there were shepherds watching their sheep.
Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”11
This was the third time an angel appeared to announce what God was doing in bringing Jesus into the world. The first was to Mary, the next one to Joseph, and now to the shepherds. In this case, the glory of the Lord—God’s radiance in the form of a brilliant light—shone around the shepherds.
We are then told that “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’”12
While making an offering in the temple when Jesus was about one month old, Joseph and Mary met Simeon, a righteous and devout man who was “eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel. When Mary and Joseph came to present the baby Jesus to the Lord as the law required, Simeon … took the child in his arms and praised God, saying … ‘I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel!’”13 Joseph and Mary marveled, or were astonished, at the words Simeon spoke about their Son.14
Matthew describes other aspects of Jesus’ birth, including the visit of the Magi: “Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.’”15
It’s not specifically known where the wise men were from, but the most important fact is that they came from outside of Israel. Matthew illustrates how God is doing a new thing by highlighting the fact that, at Jesus’ birth, Gentiles are attracted by the light of God’s Son.
When the wise men came to Bethlehem, “they entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”16 We’re never told how many Magi there were, though tradition holds that there were three, based on the three gifts listed.
As we come to the end of the story of Jesus’ birth, we can see the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a Messiah to redeem humanity beginning to unfold. Since His promise was to be fulfilled within the world, God chose to enter the time and physicality of the world. God sent His Son into the care of two faithful believers, fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies about the coming Savior, and set the stage for His promised salvation.
God entering the world and living among His creation for the purpose of reconciling humanity to Himself through His Son’s death and resurrection is the most significant event in human history. The Gospels tell us how Jesus’ life, from birth to death and beyond, fulfills God’s promises and shows His great love for humanity by making it possible for us to become His children.
- Matthew 1:18 NLT↑
- Luke 1:28, 30–35 ESV↑
- Luke 1:38 CEV↑
- Fulton J. Sheen, Life of Christ (New York: Doubleday, 1958), 9–10↑
- See Luke 1:39 ESV.↑
- Matthew 1:20↑
- See Deuteronomy 22:20–21.↑
- Matthew 1:19 ESV↑
- Matthew 1:20–21, 24–25 NIV↑
- Luke 2:6–7↑
- Luke 2:9–12 NLT↑
- Luke 2:13–14↑
- Luke 2:25, 27–28, 30–32 NLT↑
- See Luke 2:33.↑
- Matthew 2:1–2↑
- Matthew 2:11 NLT↑