The Beauty of Sharing Jesus’ Death Sentence

We continued our series through Matthew 1–2 this weekend by looking at how Jesus’ birth impacted the lives of Mary and Joseph. We often think of the birth of Jesus as a tranquil event—silent night, holy night. But the birth of Jesus was anything but tranquil for Mary and Joseph. In fact, the announcement of Jesus’ birth brought them under a sentence of death.

For Mary to be pregnant out of wedlock put her under a literal death sentence in Jewish law. But beyond that, no one would have believed the Holy-Spirit-pregnancy story, so both Mary and Joseph would have been publicly disgraced. They had to die to their good name, their cherished dreams, their families, and their homelands.

John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress, spent years in prison for preaching the gospel. He knew that following Jesus carries a death sentence with it:

“The parting with my wife and poor children hath oft been to me in this place as the pulling the flesh from my bones… I have often brought to my mind the many hardships, miseries and wants that my poor family has had to meet with… especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than all I had besides.”

“If ever I would suffer rightly I must first pass a sentence of death upon everything that can properly be called a thing of this life, even to reckon myself, my wife, my children, my health, my enjoyments, and all as dead to me and myself as dead to them.” [1]

I think of my friend “Timothy” in North Africa, who became a Christian through the ministry of one of our church planters. Even though Timothy tried to keep his conversion a secret, he returned home one day to find an angry mob outside his house. His mother had found a notebook he had been using to write down prayers. She approached him, slapped him in the face, and said, “You are no longer my son. You are dead to me.” Timothy had to flee the country and has never seen his family again.

Where did they gain the strength to endure this sentence of death? They found strength where Joseph and Mary did—in the promise of the incarnation.

The angel tells Joseph that the child would be given two names: Jesus, which means “God saves,” and Immanuel, which means “God with us.” The first shows what he does; the second, who he is.

The incarnation is not just an esoteric doctrine. It is the core of Christianity. Jesus had to be born fully human, in order to live the life we were supposed to live and to die the death we were condemned to die. He took our place on the cross as our representative, and he could only do that if he was fully human.

But he had to be fully God as well, not just because salvation is God’s alone, but because the entire reason God created us was to have a relationship with us. When God put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, they could say, “God walks with us” (Gen 3:8). When God led Israel out of Egypt, he did so with a pillar of fire, so the Israelites would say, “God is before us and behind us” (Exod 14:19). When God had them build a tabernacle, they would say, “God is in the midst of us” (Exod 25:8). When Jesus is born, the angel declares, “Immanuel; God is with us.” And when Jesus leaves his Holy Spirit, the first disciples say, “God is in us.”

The incarnation is a reminder that we were not created to serve a distant and cold Judge. You were created to love a Father and walk with him like a friend.

But the incarnation is more than a reminder of God’s love. It is a promise given in the context of mission. The greatest doctrines are always introduced in the context of mission, and the greatest missional applications always arise out of deep doctrines like the incarnation. When God says, “I am with you,” he always adds, “Therefore, go . . .”

Mary and Joseph received news of the incarnation as a call to share in the death sentence of Christ. Like Mary, Jesus would carry in his body a sentence of death; but unlike her, he would actually die in shame, bearing the curse for someone else.

Matthew’s gospel is a call to share in Christ’s mission to the ends of the earth, and he ends it as he began it: with a promise of Immanuel, God with us. “Go and make disciples,” Jesus said, “and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

[1] Faith Cook, Fearless PilgrimThe Life and times of John Bunyan, 183, 188–189.

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