This Christmas season I am taking an in-depth look at the Christmas story from the Gospel accounts. I have found over the years in ministry that many people have disconnects on why the Gospel writers included what they did in the Christmas narrative.
We began by talking about Jesus’ birth foretold to Mary by the angel Gabriel from the Gospel of Luke. Now I want to look at how Joseph responded to the news of Jesus’ conception and how God guided him.
Scripture doesn’t tell us much about Joseph. In fact, by a certain point in the Gospels he is never mentioned again. Most scholars believe Joseph did not live very long. He was likely older than Mary, and it makes sense that he would pass before her.
But the Bible does tell us the important facts about Joseph and his life. So let’s look more closely at Joseph the man, who was willing to be an earthly father to the Messiah. What can we glean from his actions, his life, and what Scripture tells us about him?
Imagine what it was like for Joseph to find out about Mary’s pregnancy. Mary was probably between the ages of 12-16 while Joseph was probably 18-20. This was not uncommon in the ancient world or in their culture.
It’s very hard for us to understand the relationship between Joseph and Mary. Some translations use the word “betrothed” while others talk about a “pledge to be married.” But our problem isn’t with the word itself. We don’t have the equivalent of the cultural relationship today.
A betrothal in Jewish society at this time usually included part of the bride price paid by Joseph, a legally binding agreement harder to break then our engagement, and the pledge to be formally married and consummate the relationship. So Jewish betrothal was a sort of halfway point between an agreement to Mary and having the ceremony and consummation of the marriage.
This was a commitment that Mary and Joseph were exclusive to one another by law. Joseph probably paid part of the bride price, expecting to finish the payment on the day they had the ceremony. Many times the husband-to-be could not take the wife-to-be home until he either built or paid to have their house built.
So we don’t know exactly where in this relationship Mary and Joseph were, but it was enough to have a legally binding agreement that could only be released through a giving her a certificate of divorce (Deuteronomy 24:3; Matthew 19:7).
And this is where the dilemma comes in for Joseph. He truly loved Mary and wanted to be with her. But as soon as the public found out she was pregnant as a virgin she and he would suffer permanent public disgrace. She could easily face being stoned to death as an adulteress.
But he did not want that for her. So he wanted to “divorce her quietly” so she would not suffer public scorn and disgrace. How did he react to the news? To be sure she probably told him about her encounter with the angel and explained everything the angel told her.
But let’s be honest. If your girlfriend or fiancé came home and told you that an angel appeared to her and told her God made her pregnant and she would bear the Anointed One prophesied about in the Scriptures, would you believe her?
Frankly, even if it was true a put Joseph in a bind. To continue to take Mary as his wife when this would be found out before they came together to consummate their marriage she would still be considered an adulteress and be subject to stoning. As her husband he may be able to protect her.
Their lives would never be the same. Everywhere they went people would stare. They would hear whispers. He would never be considered an honorable man or be able to serve in any office such as the elders.
With all of his understanding of the Scriptures and his desire to do what was right and best for Mary he could only see one possibility moving forward. A quiet divorce is the only way either of them could maintain their reputations.
A Righteous Man
All we learn about Joseph in the Gospels is that he was a righteous man (Matthew 1:19) and that he was a carpenter, or a man who worked with stone, wood, or metal (Matthew 13:55).
But we can gather a few more details about him from these narratives in the early parts of these Gospels. For one, he was concerned for Mary, wanting to do the very best he could by her. Based on what Matthew says about Mary Joseph knew she was pregnant and had also heard her defense that it was by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18).
But neither of them could claim that in the court of public opinion. So Joseph had to figure out a righteous way in this situation but was just, not wanting Mary to suffer the public’s possible stoning she was sure to receive.
He is righteous and just, but also kind. Even though he was wrong by her pregnancy he still wanted the best for her. Righteousness sometimes is not enough to fulfill God’s will in a matter. Joseph understood righteousness for his been taught it from his youth.
And he sought to do what he saw Don in Scripture for examples of righteousness. If all he had was the information given so far, then he would have made a righteous and kind move to divorce Mary quietly and move on. But that was not God’s will.
He was missing a vital piece of the puzzle. If he was going to take Mary as his wife despite what many would know about their relationship, he needed to know for sure.
Joseph was still considering the best course of action for Mary. Whether or not he decided to “sleep on it,” he had a dream. This could be like a daydream or a dream or vision like what Peter had before he visited Cornelius’ house (Acts 10:9-33). Perhaps we should decide to “sleep on it” when making life-changing decisions more often.
Whatever the case, Joseph has a dream. The dreams we see in Scripture are spiritually significant. And they require interpretation. Most of the dreams in the Bible are from the Lord. But not all dreams are from the Lord.
However, this dream is from the Lord. An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in his dream. I think many dreams start out of the subconscious, as we mold over the days events or big decisions ahead.
If this was the way Joseph’s dream started, the Lord took charge by sending His angel. This angel had a message for Joseph. He had already heard Mary talk about the Holy Spirit’s involvement in her pregnancy.
But the angel confirmed that this was God’s truth. The angel identified Joseph as a significant man, the son, or descendent, of David. God spoke with David often and now he was speaking to Joseph through His angelic messenger.
When God tells you not to be afraid to do something, and then explains His divine purposes, you don’t need to worry about what other people think. This was God’s protection over Joseph and Mary if Joseph would do with the angel told him to do.
Furthermore, the angel continued to confirm what Mary had already told him from her angelic visit. Mary would bear a special Son who would save God’s people from their sins. The angel told Joseph to call his name Jesus, the same name Mary gave.
Be careful not to accept anything because you have a dream or an angel tell you to do it, and someone else mentioned it as well. Matthew does not stop at the dream as confirmation. As we should always do, Matthew goes to Scripture to show us the ultimate confirmation.
Scripture said it, the angel of the Lord confirmed it in a dream, and an angel had said the same thing to Mary. Matthew’s understanding of Isaiah’s prophecy shows us both the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and his understanding of the ultimate fulfillment of prophecy.
Matthew quotes from Isaiah 7:14 to confirm what Joseph experienced. The situation of Isaiah 7 bears closer observation to understand how prophecy works.
When you look at Isaiah’s confrontation of King Ahaz, the king of Judah, Matthew quotes the sign of Isaiah’s prophecy. King Ahaz and all Judah with him is afraid of the Northern Alliance that is about to declare war on Judah.
King Ahaz decides he will trust a human partnership with Egypt, the former house of Israel’s slavery in Exodus, over having faith in God to protect His people. God sends Isaiah to confront this king’s lack of faith.
When King Ahaz refuses to test the Lord, even though the Lord calls him to test Him, Isaiah confirms his prophecy that these two kingdoms within 62 years will not even exist with a sign. The sign is that a virgin will bear a son and this son will be called Immanuel, which Matthew translates for any non-Jewish audience as “God with us.”
Now the Hebrew word for a virgin is not a technical term. A virgin can be a young unmarried woman, or a virgin, as in a woman who has not had sexual relations with a man. In Jewish society if a young woman is unmarried she had better be a virgin also.
In Greek there are several words to describe a young woman in her relationships. There is a technical term in Greek for a woman who has not lain with a man, and this is the word Matthew uses when he quotes from the prophecy.
Matthew gives this quotation with that term as proof that this prophecy, though it was a sign for King Ahaz in his time, is ultimately fulfilled perfectly as a reference to Mary and Jesus. While the birth of this son in Ahaz’s time would show that God was with his people in protecting them from the Northern Alliance, Jesus is the divine Son of God who is literally God with us.
Prophecies can have more than one fulfillment but they are ultimately fulfilled in the literal prophecy’s full correlation with all factors. This is why many of the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament find their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus and why we believe He is the Messiah.
Obeying the Lord
Scripture tells us two things about Joseph, that he was righteous and obedient. We will discuss in a later post how Joseph was instrumental in protecting Jesus from those who sought to end his life.
But here we see that when Joseph is given more information from the angel of the Lord he does not hesitate to obey the Lord and do what he is told. He takes Mary home as his wife. But he honors the Lord and her eye not consummating the marriage until after Mary bears Jesus.
He is a righteous, honorable, and obedient man. Though there are a handful of verses in the Bible about Joseph we can learn so much from his example. Without his obedience and righteousness the Christmas story would not be written.
The Meaning of Christmas
Joseph is a great example of what God desires from each of us. You need to be righteous, make just decisions, and follow through to honor God and please Him. When there is a clear understanding of the situation you have all you need to make it.
But there are times when God reveals more information about that situation. Like Joseph, you need to hear all of what God has to say before you act. And when He gives you all the information and calls you to action, you must be obedient.
Be like Joseph. So many people know the right thing to do and don’t do it. Other people hear God’s voice clearly but hesitate to obey. Let it never be said of you that you were indecisive in the face of God’s command.
Now that we have seen how Joseph played his part in making sure that Jesus would be born the way God intended for His plan to work out it is time to discover the extraordinary birth of Jesus.