Matthew’s gospel was written to Jewish disciples in the years prior to the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70). Tension between the synagogue and the church was continuing to escalate and life was difficult for the follower of Jesus. By beginning his gospel with a genealogy connecting Jesus to Abraham and David (1:1), Matthew is in a sense credentialing Jesus and showing the disciples that He is indeed the Messiah. The same is true in regard to his record of Jesus being born of a virgin in fulfillment of prophecy (v. 18-22). All of this would have the effect of reassuring anxious disciples and helping them to stand firm in the face of opposition.
But Matthew’s introduction of Jesus serves more than apologetic purposes. He tells us in v. 23 that Mary’s son will be called “Immanuel” (which means ‘God with us’) v. 23. And with that, Matthew has peeled away all of the layers and laid bare the cosmic essence of his gospel—it is the profound and powerful news that in the birth of Jesus, God has visited our planet and its people. God is with us!
And yet this doesn’t exhaust everything that Matthew is telling us in these marvelous words. In Isaiah’s time, the boy Immanuel’s presence among them was a sign first that the Syria-Israel coalition wouldn’t prevail against Judah (and to a lesser extent that Assyria wouldn’t either). In the midst of appearances that suggested otherwise, they were to see the boy and be reminded that God was with them in the sense that He would be faithful to the promises He had made (Isaiah 7:4-9, 8:9-10).
So it is with Christ who appears to an oppressed people whose leaders are more interested in appeasing Rome than pleasing God (see John 11:47-53). But more to the point, He appears to a nation worn down by sin. No one sits on the throne of David. The temple is a den of robbers rather than a house of prayer. The whole country needs to be called back to God but there is no prophet to do so. It very much appears that God is not with them.
Then a virgin is with child! Yes, a virgin is to have a child–how can that happen? There’s only one way it can happen and only one thing it can mean—God is now with them! They might not have a king on the throne but they are to have Immanuel among them. And while it’s true that His kingdom will bring an end to Rome (see Daniel 2, especially v. 31-45), the larger truth is that He will bring an end to the reign of sin and deliver us into a new life (Matthew 1:21).
When all is said and done, that’s what we really need. We’ve been programmed to think that what we really need is success, status and significance but I’m not sure that isn’t what we need to be delivered from. What we really need is God with us because that is life in all of its richness and abundance!