The Struggle to Believe

Do you ever struggle to believe? Sometimes we look at our circumstances and just can’t believe that God is wise or good or cares. Or that God even exists.

  • Wildfires, hurricanes, and tornadoes
  • Cancer, ALS and mental illness
  • Racial injustice, political corruption, and economic uncertainty
  • Broken marriages, unfulfilling jobs, and besetting sins

At some point, most of us will reach that juncture on our faith journey.

We will struggle to believe.

This may be a primary reason why Matthew wrote his gospel (a historical testimony of the life of Jesus)—for those of us who struggle to believe. For those who feel the profound disappointment of living in such a broken world, need some evidence that there really is a God to trust.

How Matthew does this is by taking prophetic promises in the Old Testament, made hundreds and hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, and shows how they are fulfilled.

There are more than 300 specific prophetic promises made in the Old Testament that are fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus. To put it in statistical perspective, the probability of one person fulfilling even 8 predictions is 1 in 10 with 18 zeroes. Fulfilling 48 predictions would be 1 in 10 followed by 157 zeroes. To fulfill over 300? Practically incalculable.

But it happened.

Over 300 promises were made. All the promises were kept—fulfilled. Over the next five weeks we will be looking at five of these promises and working out the life-changing implications.

The goal of today’s lesson in Matthew 1:18-25 is to help us open our hearts to believing again.

We are going to start in verse 18.

 

VERSE 18

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.

Can you imagine Mary trying to explain to Joseph? “But Joseph, it was the Holy Spirit.”

The original “Really?” “Really? You are really going with that?

This would have been emotionally devastating for Joseph. Feeling so deeply betrayed by the girl he loved. He would have been a broken man.

 

VERSE 19

19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

Since he wasn’t really buying the “Holy Spirit” did it excuse, he had decided to end their engagement.

Betrothals in the ancient world were more binding than modern engagements. So much so that to annul an engagement required a formal divorce process.

Rather than seeking vengeance with public exposure, Joseph’s plan was to protect what he could of her reputation.

People were going to talk. A unwed mother in a first century hamlet? Mary’s pregnancy would have been a scandal – a “public disgrace.” It was unlikely she would ever marry.

Put yourself in their shoes. Hopes and dreams shattered. Happiness and joy had been replaced with shame and disgrace. And the Lord had not only permitted this, he had planned it.

Mary had already heard from the angel and had processed her circumstances, actually coming to a place of personal joy in God’s sovereign purposes—regardless of people would say.

But this was new information for Joseph, which is why an angel, a messenger from God, confirms the veracity of Mary’s story in verse 20.

 

VERSES 20-21

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.”

Why might he have been afraid? People would talk. This would not only ruin her reputation, but his reputation as well.

But this was no ordinary baby. The child would be God in the flesh who was being born for a very specific mission, which is revealed in verse 21.

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.”

“In antiquity, names were often thought to be emblematic of the character or calling of the individual.”[1] The name Jesus is no different.

Jesus is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Joshua, which, when translated from the Hebrew, means, “the LORD saves.”

This raises several questions:

(1)  Who were “his people?” In John 10, Jesus uses the metaphor of sheep to describe his people from the goats, those who are not his people. Theologically, the apostles called God’s people “the elect”—those whom, in love, God chose (or predestined) to be his own people before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4-6). Not only Jews, but people from every “nation, tribe, people, and language” (Revelation 7:9).

(2)  What was their predicament? From what did they need saving? Not political oppression, nor social injustice, nor a lack of material resources or poor health. These are real needs, but not the ultimate need. The ultimate need of God’s people is deliverance and rescue from the judgement our sin deserves.

(3) How would he save them? By becoming one of us and taking our place in judgment.

The Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah was written over 700 years before the incarnation of Jesus. Chapter 53 provides a very descriptive prophetic foreshadowing of the ministry of Jesus. Not as a helpless babe, but as a grown man. The focus of Isaiah 53 is not a cradle, but a cross.

5  But he [Jesus] was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.   6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. [2]

This is how Jesus would save his people from their sins. He would suffer execution through crucifixion.

 

VERSES 22-23

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin[3] will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”

In verse 23, Matthew is quoting God’s promise in Isaiah 7:14—the first of the 5 predictive promises in the first two chapters of Matthew.

The focus of this first promise is that the miracle child born to a virgin would be called “Immanuel.”

Like the name Jesus, Immanuel has a specific meaning in the original Hebrew of the name.

In Hebrew… Im = “with,” anu = “us,” and el = “God”[4]

Jesus came to be with us as one of us—in the flesh. The purpose was not just to empathize with our sufferings, which he can and does; his purpose was to endure the ultimate suffering… in our place.[5]

The vision of Isaiah’s prophecy takes us on a journey from the cradle in chapter 7 to the cross in chapter 53.

 

VERSES 24-25

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 had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.[6] And he gave him the name Jesus.[7]

When Joseph wakes, he demonstrates his faith by actually naming the child, Jesus.

We are not called to name the Son of God but to believe upon his name—that the Lord saves.

Four Major Take-Aways

1) God has a perfect plan that is filled with purpose.

2) That plan often will not make sense and will require an extreme degree of trust.

3) The potential consequences of following the ways of the Lord will tempt us to not follow his clearly marked path. “What will people say? This could cost me my reputation?”

4) Trust requires a radical humility and willing submission.

In the late 1600s, Francois Fenelon recognized that this kind of humility and submission was not natural. So he prayed earnestly to possess it.

“Lord, I know not what I ought to ask of thee; thou only knowest what I need. … I open my heart to thee. Behold my needs which I know not myself. Smite, or heal; depress me, or raise me up; I adore all thy purposes without knowing them… I yield myself to thee [that] I would have no other desire than to accomplish thy will. Amen.”[8]

This sounds like a prayer Joseph may have prayed after being visited by the angel.

This sounds a lot like the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his betrayal before his crucifixion.

For it is a radical humility and willing submission that we see demonstrated by Jesus when faced with obeying the plan of the Father.

In view of the cross, Jesus faced disgrace. To be executed in such a way was to be declared the worst of the worst, the despised of the despised. To be crucified was to be cursed by God.

But that is exactly what Jesus chose to become for us. He was despised. He was rejected. He was condemned. He received the curse of the law. Just like Joseph, the Righteous man was willing to be counted as unrighteous in order to bless the one he loved.

The result is that Jesus has saved his people from their sins.

Because of the cross, we are no longer despised. We are not rejected. We are no longer condemned and are not cursed.

We are no longer a disgrace.

This is what God would speak to you today. Just like the Lord spoke to Joseph in a dream, he speaks to us in the Scriptures of the same Savior.

1)  Will you believe? That through Jesus you are forgiven, treasured, and a beloved child of God.

2)  Will you take actual steps to express that faith?

Where do you fear to obey him? With your money? With some life-trajectory altering decision? Maybe your next step is to receive him as Savior for the first time?

If that is your response, then let’s express that that new faith in prayer.

“Dear God, I thank you for a Savior in Jesus, who was judged that I may be forgiven and was rejected that I may be accepted. I believe that I am your fully forgiven, treasured, and beloved child. Let me now live all of my life in view of such amazing grace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”


If you prayed this prayer to receive Jesus as Savior and Lord, please let me know. If you’d like my free booklet on starting your journey of growing in grace, just include your email and I will send it to you. You will not be placed on an email list. It is a free gift with no strings attached. 🙂

Feel free to follow my page on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/mckaycaston.

By grace alone,

McKay Caston

 


[1] John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Mt 1:21.

[2] The Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), Is 53:5–6.

[3] John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Mt 1:23. In the Septuagint version of Isa 7:14, the Greek word parthenos is used to translate the Hebrew word almah. The other six occurrences of almah in the ot refer to young women of marriageable age with no direct indication of whether they are virgins or not (Gen 24:43; Exod 2:8; Psa 68:25; Prov 30:19; Song 1:3; 6:8); in contrast, parthenos normally indicates a virgin, though not exclusively (in the Septuagint version of Gen 34:3 parthenos is used to describe Dinah following intercourse). However, women of marriageable age in ancient patriarchal culture like Matthew’s were expected to be virgins.

While the Hebrew word used most often to indicate a virgin is bethulah (Lev 21:3; Judg 21:12; Deut 22:23, 28; Exod 22:16), almah is used as a synonym for bethulah (Gen 24:16, 43; compare Gen 24:14). In addition, Song 6:8 lists queens, concubines, and alamoth (the plural form of almah)—this last group, the alamoth, seems to be a group of women who do not have a sexual relationship with the king. This same distinction between the queen, concubines, and virgins occurs in the book of Esther (Esth 2:3, 8, 14), but in Esther, the virgins are described as na’arah bethulah (“young virgins”). This parallel suggests Song 6:8 is using the same language as the book of Esther but using alamoth in place of na’arah bethulah—indicating that both terms can describe virgins. These connections explain Matthew’s use of Isa 7:14 to reference the virgin birth (see Isa 7:14 and note).

[4] Stuart K. Weber, Matthew, vol. 1, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 19.

[5] Philippians 2:7-8, 7 [Jesus] made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

[6] John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Mt 1:25. “Matthew is careful to indicate that no human father had any role in Jesus’ conception.”

[7] The Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), Mt 1:18–25.

[8] Francois Fenelon, Leadership, Vol. 9, no. 4.

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