The Gospel Accounts of the Christmas Story

I am going to be teaching this topic in my adult Sunday School class in a few days.  I have modified a lesson that I originally developed this time three years ago, when I was just beginning to learn how to use commentaries and other resources to study the Bible.  I will briefly discuss how the Christmas story is presented in different ways in Matthew, Luke, and John.  However, the main focus below will be to highlight how Matthew uses the Old Testament to show how Jesus fulfills OT prophecy.  It is my desire that this brief study will build up the reader’s faith.  I encourage you reread Matthew and Luke’s accounts between now and Christmas and worship the King of Kings!

Matthew’s version of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth are different from those of the other gospel writers.  Where is Mark’s Christmas story?  It is not there.  He begins with a grown-up John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry.  Luke gives us the most detail (2:1-20); this is the version that usually gets read aloud at Christmas Eve services.  There are several events mentioned in Matthew that are not found in Luke, and vice versa.  John gives us a most unique perspective.  John 1:1-14 talks about Jesus’ origins, but much of it focuses on his pre-incarnate state: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  John sets the stage for the rest of his Gospel with this emphasis on Jesus’ divine nature, whereas Matthew and Luke emphasize His humanity as well as His divinity.

Although they are commonly referred to as the “birth narratives”, Matthew never actually describes what happened when Jesus was born. He only gives selected episodes before and after His birth.  The first thing we notice is the long genealogy found in the first chapter of his Gospel.  In Matt. 1:1-17, we see the Old Testament (OT) patriarchs listed: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.  David is referred to not once but three times (verses 1, 6, and 17), finally ending with Joseph.  When Joseph is listed, interestingly, he is not described in the same pattern as the others that came before, as “the father of” the next one in line.  He is called “the husband of Mary”.

Matthew consistently focuses on Jesus’ fulfillment of OT prophecy throughout his Gospel.  He starts off by quoting four passages in the first two chapters.  I will summarize my findings from various commentaries for each of these passages, followed by footnotes at the end.

Matt. 1:22-23 (Isa. 7:14). First, “Regarding the idea of prophecy and fulfillment, Matthew finds in the OT not only isolated predictions regarding the Messiah but also OT history and people as paradigms that, to those with eyes to see, point forward to the Messiah.”[1]  Secondly, “This is a quotation from Isa. 7:14, where the prophet Isaiah consoles King Ahaz of Judah. . . There are several interpretations of Matthew’s use of this OT prophecy.  Some view Isaiah’s prophecy as directly prophetic of Jesus’ birth and nothing else. . . Since the Hebrew noun translated virgin in Isa. 7:14 can also mean ‘young woman,’ some have suggested that Isaiah was prophesying about a son born during the lifetime of Ahaz – perhaps Isaiah’s son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (Isa. 8:3).  Others have interpreted Isaiah’s prophecy as a prediction that a virgin, a contemporary of Isaiah, would marry and have a child. . . Even though uncertainty surrounds how this prophecy was fulfilled during Isaiah’s lifetime, Matthew makes it clear that Isaiah’s words find their ultimate fulfillment in the virgin birth of Jesus, a sign to people of all ages that God was with them.”[2]  Third, “Isa. 7:1-9:7 must be read as a unit. . . Matthew has correctly understood Isaiah that the Immanuel figure of 7:14 is a messianic figure.”[3]  Finally, “The people of the Jews had God with them, in types and shadows, dwelling between the cherubim; but never so as when the Word was made flesh . . . By the light of nature, we see God as a God above us; by the light of the law, we see him as a God against us; but by the light of the gospel, we see him as Immanuel, God with us, in our own nature, and in our interest.”[4]

Matt. 2:6 (Micah 5:2).  First, “Matthew clearly records how the Jewish religious authorities, who became Christ’s enemies later, unintentionally affirmed that Jesus had fulfilled a messianic prophecy in His birth.”[5]  Second, “Ephrathah is the ancient name of Bethlehem (Gen. 35:16, 19; 48:7; Ruth 4:11) and distinguishes it from other towns named Bethlehem (cf. Josh. 19:15).  Its use identifies the town in which David was born (1 Sam. 17:12), thus establishing a connection between the messianic King and David.”[6]   Finally, “Bethlehem signifies the house of bread; the fittest place for him to be born in who is the true manna, the bread which came down from heaven, which was given for the life of the world.”[7]

Matt. 2:14-15 (Hosea 11:1).  First, “Matthew goes on to point out that Jesus’ exodus from Egypt fulfilled Scripture written long before. . . Pharaoh had to let Israel go because Israel was the Lord’s son (Ex. 4:22-23).  Thus it is only fitting that Jesus also come out of Egypt as God’s Son. . . Not only in Matthew but elsewhere in the NT the history and laws of the OT are perceived to have prophetic significance.”[8]  Second, “This one in 2:15 is a typological fulfillment. . . Jesus is the genuine Son of God, and, as Israel’s Messiah, is the true Israel (John 15:1); therefore, He gives fuller meaning to the prophecy of Hos. 11:1.”[9]

Matt. 2:18 (Jer. 31:15).  “This text probably refers to the deportation of Judah and Benjamin in 587-586 B.C. . . Jeremiah 31:15 depicts Rachel as crying out from her tomb because her ‘children,’ her descendants, are being removed from the land and are no longer a nation.  Why does Matthew refer to this OT passage?  First, Jer 31:15 occurs in a setting of hope.  Despite the tears, God says, the exiles will return; and now Matthew likewise suggests that, despite the tears of the Bethlehem mothers, there is hope because Messiah has escaped Herod and will ultimately reign.”[10]

[1] Barker and Kohlenberger, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, 10.

[2] Earl D. Radmacher, ed., Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 1139-40.

[3] Barker and Kohlenberger, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, 11.

[4] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), 1205.

[5] Radmacher, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary, 1141.

[6] Barker and Kohlenberger, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 1, 1475.

[7] Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, 1207.

[8] Barker and Kohlenberger, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, 13-14.

[9] Radmacher, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary, 1141-42.

[10] Barker and Kohlenberger, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, 14-15.

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