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Christmas Narrative, Sexual Sin, and Salvation from Sin

by Gary F. Zeolla

18Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this manner: For His mother Mary, having been promised in marriage to Joseph, before they came together [fig., had sexual relations], was found having in [the] womb [fig., to have become pregnant] by [the] Holy Spirit. 19But Joseph her husband being righteous and not wanting to publicly disgrace her, intended to privately send her away [or, to secretly divorce her].

20But while he was thinking about these [things], look!, an angel [or, a messenger] of [the] Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, you should not be afraid to take Mary [as] your wife, for the [Baby] in her was conceived by [the] Holy Spirit. 21And she will give birth to a Son, and you will call His name Jesus ["Yahweh saves"], for He will save His people from their sins."

22Now this whole [thing] has happened so that the [word] spoken by the Lord through the prophet should be fulfilled, saying, 23"Look! The virgin will have in [the] womb [fig., will conceive], and she will give birth to a Son, and they will call His name Emmanuel," which is, being translated, "God with us." [Isaiah 7:14]

24Now Joseph, having been awakened from his sleep, did as the angel of [the] Lord ordered him, and he took his wife, 25and he was not knowing her [fig., was not having sexual relations with her] until she gave birth to her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus (Matthew 1:18-25)

This is the familiar Christmas narrative as recorded in the Gospel According to Matthew. But there are important points in this narrative that many miss. So this article will provide a verse by verse exposition of this passage. All verses will be quoted from the Analytical-Literal Translation: Third Edition (ALT3).

18Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this manner: For His mother Mary, having been promised in marriage to Joseph, before they came together [fig., had sexual relations], was found having in [the] womb [fig., to have become pregnant] by [the] Holy Spirit.

Mary had been promised in marriage to Joseph. This was in the days of prearranged marriages. The parents would arrange marriages for their children. But in today's terms, Mary and Joseph would be considered to be engaged. But the important point here is that Joseph and Mary, despite knowing they were going to get married, had not yet engaged in sexual intercourse.

The reason this is important is that if this were today, you would be hard pressed to find an engaged couple who had not yet been engaging in sexual relations. I say this as I have talked to pastors and others who provide pre-martial counseling for engaged couples. Given today's situation, they say they assume the couple is already having sex, unless they are given clear evidence that the couple is not doing so. But this situation is far from the Biblical model, as seen in the lives of Mary and Joseph.

The most important point of this verse is that Mary become pregnant "by the Holy Spirit." But exactly how this was done we are not told. But it was a miracle for a virgin to have become pregnant.

But it should be noted that if Mary had not been a virgin, then this whole story could not have happened. There would have been no way to know if Mary had become pregnant by whomever she had sex with or if it was a miraculous conception. It was only by her being a virgin that it could be clearly seen that a miracle had taken place.

19But Joseph her husband being righteous and not wanting to publicly disgrace her, intended to privately send her away [or, to secretly divorce her].

In the Companion Volume to the ALT, I discuss the translation of the last term in this verse (pp. 42-43). The word most literally means "send away." But traditionally, it is translated as "divorce" in passages such as this one. However, there are some who believe the word refers to "sending away" a divorced spouse with a "certificate of divorce" (see Matt 19:7).

Since Joseph and Mary were not yet married, "send away" might fit better here. But the important point is that Joseph obviously did not believe Mary when she told him she was pregnant but that she was still a virgin. Needless to say, that is hard to believe. Joseph assumed, just as anyone would, that Mary had cheated on him. But again, if Joseph and Mary had been having sex, then there would have been no reason for this assumption. Joseph would have just assumed the child was his. So again, if Joseph and Mary had been engaging in sexual intercourse, then the Christmas story would not have happened.

But in the Jewish culture of the times, most women knew not to engage in sexual intercourse before marriage. The reason was, most Jewish men would not consider marrying a woman who was not a virgin. Moreover, a man had a right to divorce his new wife if he found out on the wedding night that she was not a virgin. Importantly, Jesus appears to support this right in Matthew 5:31,32:

31"Now it was said, ‘Whoever sends away [or, divorces] his wife must give to her a written notice of divorce.' [Deut 24:1,3] 32But I say to you*, whoever sends away [or, divorces] his wife, except for a matter of sexual sin [or, fornication], makes her to be committing adultery; and whoever marries the one having been sent away [or, having been divorced] commits adultery.

Here, Jesus gives an "exception clause" to the restriction against divorce. That exception is "sexual sin." The Greek word used here is not the usual word for committing adultery (moicheuo). The Greek word used here is porneia. This word is discussed at length in the Companion Volume (p.49). But basically, it refers to sexual intercourse outside of a Biblically lawful marriage. The word includes the idea of adultery, but also of pre-marital sex, among other sexual sins.

Most likely, this more general word for sexual sin is used rather than the specific word for adultery because Jesus was not only saying divorce was justified when a woman cheated on her husband after marriage, but it was also justified for a man to divorce his wife is he found out she had sex with someone else before they were married. So it was not just the culture of the times, but Jesus Himself who is teaching that sexual intercourse before marriage is wrong.

Adding to this is that in the Jewish culture of the time it was very difficult for a single woman to support herself. Most women stayed in their father's homes until they got married and then moved into their husband's home after marriage. About the only "career" open to a single woman was prostitution. So either a woman remained a virgin until she got married or she became a prostitute.

Moreover, for a woman to get pregnant out of wedlock was a great disgrace. That is why Joseph is said to be "righteous" for not wanting to publicly expose Mary's apparent infidelity.

20But while he was thinking about these [things], look!, an angel [or, a messenger] of [the] Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, you should not be afraid to take Mary [as] your wife, for the [Baby] in her was conceived by [the] Holy Spirit.

Dreams are sometimes used in the Bible by God to reveal His will to people. But this is not to say all dreams are messages from God! Most are definitely not. But it does happen. And the important point here is that Joseph is now told how Mary because pregnant. She did not cheat on him. It was in fact a miracle, just as she had told him.

21And she will give birth to a Son, and you will call His name Jesus ["Yahweh saves"], for He will save His people from their sins."

This verse summarizes the whole point of this narrative. Mary is to give birth to Jesus. The name Jesus means "Yahweh saves." Some have seen in this meaning of His name support for the deity of Jesus. However, names at the time often used some form of "God" (Hebrew, elohim) or "Lord" (Hebrew, yhwh) in them. For instance, Ezekiel means "God will strengthen" (Fausset's Bible Dictionary). But Jesus' name does have significance. It summarizes Jesus mission: to say His people from their sins.

But what is meant by "His people?" The most obvious answer would be the Jewish people. And it is true that Jesus said, "I was not sent except to the sheep, the ones lost from the house of Israel" (Matt 15:24).

However, later Jesus would add, "And other sheep [i.e., Gentiles] I have which are not from this fold [i.e., the Jews]. These also it is necessary [for] Me to bring, and My voice they will hear. And they will become one flock [with] one Shepherd" (John 10:16). As indicted in ALT3, "the other sheep" are the Gentiles.

And Paul writes in Romans:

25As also in Hosea He says: "I will call the [people] not My people, ‘My people;' and the [people] not beloved, ‘Beloved.' 26And it will be in the place where it was said to them, ‘You [are] not My people,' in that place they will be called sons [and daughters] of the living God." [Hosea 2:23; 1:10] (Romans 9:25-26).

So Jesus' mission was never only to the Jewish people; it was always intended that He would save Gentiles from their sins as well. So God's people are to be taken from all races. The fulfillment of this can be seen in Revelation 5:9:

And they sing a new song, saying: "You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because You were slain, and You redeemed us to God by Your blood, out of every tribe and tongue [fig., language group] and people and nation."

So instead, "His people" is a reference to those who are destined to believe on Jesus for their salvation. This can be seen in John 10, where Jesus first declares, "I am the good shepherd! The good shepherd lays down His life on behalf of the sheep" (verse 11). He then adds, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me" (verse 27). So you are one of Jesus' "sheep" if you follow Him and trust in Him for salvation from your sins (see also Acts 13:48).

But what does it mean to be "saved from sin?" Salvation from sin would entail first, forgiveness from past sins. This can be seen in 1John 1:9 "If we shall be confessing our sins, He is faithful [or, trustworthy] and righteous that He shall forgive us our sins and cleanse [or, purge] us from all unrighteousness."

But salvation from sin also includes the idea of being given the power or strength to refrain from sin. "Everyone having been begotten from God is not practicing sin, because His seed abides in him, and he is not able to be sinning, because he has been begotten from God" (1John 3:9).

The exact wording here is important, but it is missed in some translations. ALT3 correctly renders the idea of "practicing sin." The text is not saying that born again Christians will never commit an act of sin. John previously denied that possibility in 1:8 of his epistle. But what John is saying is that a lifestyle of sin is not possible for the born again child of God.

When a born again person sins, the Holy Spirit will convict the person of sin and lead him or her to repentance. And true repentance includes a change of mind and desire brought about by the Holy Sprit to not sin again. The Holy Spirit will also empower the person to avoid sin in the future. And being able to avoid sin is truly being set free from sin. This is what Jesus meant when He declared, "Therefore, if the Son makes you* free, you* will be free indeed! (John 8:36).

22Now this whole [thing] has happened so that the [word] spoken by the Lord through the prophet should be fulfilled, saying, 23"Look! The virgin will have in [the] womb [fig., will conceive], and she will give birth to a Son, and they will call His name Emmanuel," which is, being translated, "God with us." [Isaiah 7:14]

The fulfillment of prophecy is an important theme in the life of Jesus. And being born of a virgin was to be one "mark" of the promised Messiah.

The preceding text showed clearly that Mary was in fact a virgin when she conceived Jesus. But some question has been raised about the meaning of the word used here. The Greek word is parthenos. It is translated from the Hebrew word almah. In both cases, lexicons give "virgin" as a possible meaning; however, they also give "maiden" (Friberg, TWOT). "Maiden" means "a girl or a young unmarried woman" (Webster's).

So some claim the prophecy was not really about a virgin conceiving but simply an unmarried woman conceiving. However, "There is no instance where it can be proved that almā designates a young woman who is not a virgin" (TWOT).

Moreover, the preceding discussion needs to be remembered. Unlike today, in the Jewish culture of the time, a young woman who had never been married was almost always a virgin. That is why one word could refer to both a virgin and a young unmarried woman since almost all of the time they were one and the same. Again, only a prostitute would not remain a virgin until marriage.

Finally on this verse, it is said that the Messiah would be called "Emmanuel." Matthew tells us this word means "God with us." Again, some find in this name support of the deity of Jesus. In this case, there could be some credence in this interpretation. Jesus is never actually called "Emmanuel." That destination is more a description of the nature of the Messiah than a true name. So this prophecy from Isaiah could have been preparing the Jewish people for the idea that the Messiah would in fact be God in the flesh.

24Now Joseph, having been awakened from his sleep, did as the angel of [the] Lord ordered him, and he took his wife,

This verse goes back to verse 20. Joseph realized that his dream was in fact a message from the Lord. And being the righteous man that he was, he believed the Lord's message and took Mary to be his wife.

This was actually a big step of faith as the assumption of most everyone would be that he was the one who got Mary pregnant out of wedlock. If he had, then the Law required that he marry the woman, so it would have been the right thing to do (see Exod 22:28,29) But still, at that time, that was a disgrace. He would have appeared much better to his countrymen is he had gone through with his plans and sent Mary away. Then people would have assumed that Mary had cheated on him. But now, they would assume that he had sinned sexually with Mary.

This assumption can be seen in John 8:41 when the Pharisees declare to Jesus, "We have not been born out of sexual sin [or, fornication]." Their implication was that Jesus was born of fornication; that His parents had engaged in pre-marital sex. This was a disgrace not just to the parents but to the child as well. But interestingly, this verse does show that it was well-known that there was something different about Jesus' birth; that it was out of the norm.

25and he was not knowing her [fig., was not having sexual relations with her] until she gave birth to her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus.

This verse tells us that Joseph waited not only until they got married but until after Jesus was born to have sex with Mary. But they obviously proceeded to have a healthy sex life as Scripture tells us that they went on to have four more sons and at least two daughters (see Matt 13:55,56). At least, this is the most natural reading of this text.

However, the Catholic Church claims Mary was "ever virgin"—that Joseph and Mary never had sex. This idea grew out of the belief of the Middle Ages that being single and celibate was somehow more "holy" than being married and having sex with one's spouse. It also grows out of a debasement of sex.

But there is zero Biblical evidence for the idea that Mary and Joseph never had sex. And this verse and the one about Jesus' brothers and sisters is strong evidence that they did engage in sex.

But most importantly, being single and celibate is not a holier lifestyle than being married and having sex with one's spouse. The Bible in no way debases marriage and marital sex. Sex within marriage is ordained and blessed by God (see Gen 1:28; 2:24). In fact, Paul tells married Christian couples to "Stop depriving one another" and specifically commands them to be having sex (1Cor 7:1-5).

The point is, God is not against sex. He is the one who created it and made it so enjoyable. But He also knew that sex outside of marriage is detrimental, even dangerous, both physically and emotionally.

Think about the long list of sexually transmitted diseases that are rampant in our society. Of course, our society's "solution" to these is condoms and vaccinations. But these are not foolproof methods. The only foolproof method for avoiding sexually transmitted diseases is abstinence. There is also the myriad of problems that are caused by women and even girls getting pregnant out of wedlock. And again, the only foolproof method for avoiding pregnancy is abstinence.

But beyond these physical problems is the emotional turmoil caused by engaging in pre-marital sex. Sex has a way of binding people together, but when the relationship ends, as it almost always does when people are engaging in pre-marital sex, then broken hearts are inevitable. And after a string of such broken hearts, a person looses the ability to truly bond with someone. In fact, it could be said that the number one cause of divorce is pre-marital sex.

But if a couple waits until marriage to have sex, then their relationship and yes even sex life will be blessed by God, and their chances for a successful marriage are greatly increased.

Conclusion

The whole point of the Christmas narrative is that Jesus came to save His people from their sins. And a very common sin of today is a theme seen throughout this narrative, sexual sin or fornication. In today's culture, pre-marital sex is no longer considered to be a sin. It is considered to be normal, natural, even expected. But as this narrative makes clear, that is not God's ideal. God's ideal is for people to be virgins when they get married.

3For this is the will of God, your* sanctification: [for] you* yourselves to be abstaining from sexual sin [or, fornication], 4[for] each of you* to know how to be acquiring his own vessel [fig., wife; cp. 1Pet 3:7] in sanctification and honor, 5not in lustful passion of desire, just as also the Gentiles, the ones not knowing God (1Thes 4:3-5).

But if you the reader have already sinned in this regard, all is not lost. Again, the whole point of Jesus' birth was that He came to save His people from their sins, and that includes sexual sins. If you repent of your sin and trust in Jesus Christ for your forgiveness, He will forgive you. God can also give you the strength to avoid sexual and other sins in the future. So you will no longer be a sexual sinner but forgiven and purified of your sins.

9You* know that unrighteous [persons] will not inherit [the] kingdom of God, do you* not? Stop being led astray [fig., being deceived]; neither sexual sinners, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor passive partners in male-male sex, nor active partners in male-male sex, 10nor covetous [persons], nor thieves, nor drunkards, nor slanderers [or, abusive persons], nor swindlers will inherit [the] kingdom of God.

11And these some [of] you* were! [or, And such were some of you*!] But you* yourselves were washed [fig., purified], but you* were sanctified, but you* were justified [or, declared righteous] in the name of the Lord Jesus and in [or, by] the Spirit of our God! (1Corinthians 6:9-11).

 

Bibliography:

Scripture taken from the Analytical-Literal Translation of the New Testament: Third Edition. Copyright © 2007 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.DTL.org). Previously copyrighted © 1999, 2001, 2005 by Gary F. Zeolla.

Companion Volume to the Analytical-Literal Translation. Copyright © 2007 by Gary F. Zeolla.

BibleWorks™ for Windows™. Copyright © 1992-2003 BibleWorks, L.C.C. Big Fork, MT: Hermeneutika. Programmed by Michael S. Bushell and Michael D. Tan.

Fausset's Bible Dictionary. On BibleWorks.

Friberg, Timothy and Barbara. Analytical Greek New Testament. 1994. On BibleWorks.

Theological Workbook of the Old Testament. On BibleWorks.

Webster's Talking Dictionary/ Thesaurus. Licensed property of Parson's Technology, Inc. v. 1.0b. Software Copyright 1996 by Exceller Software Corp. Based on Random House Webster's College Dictionary. Copyright 1995 by Random House, Inc.

Christmas Narrative, Sexual Sin, and Salvation from Sin. Copyright © 2007 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org).


For comments on the above article, see Comments on Previous Sex Issues.

The above article first appeared in the Free Darkness to Light Newsletter.
It was posted on this site December 1, 2007.

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