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All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel” (which means, God with us) (Matthew 1:22-23).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Joseph is a man who remains in the background. We rarely think of him because he never speaks; at least, none of his words are recorded in Scripture. We know him by his actions. We know him by the fruit of his faith. He’s a good man, a righteous man, a man who seeks to do God’s will. He seems to be thoughtful and merciful. He considers his situation carefully and wants to avoid putting Mary to shame. He’s the kind of man that you hope your sons will become and your daughters will marry. Oh, that we would have more men of such character!
But unfortunately, Joseph’s plans have all fallen apart. He’s just found out that Mary, his wife-to-be, is with child. And he knows it cannot be his! The only logical conclusion is that she has been unfaithful. Now, he’s conflicted as he faces an impossible situation. Not only will he (together with Mary) be subject to intense social shame, but there is a deep sense of betrayal, and he is plagued with nagging doubts about her trustworthiness and his own judgment. What can he do? Nothing he can do will ever fix this!
Joseph has the legal right to file for divorce. Unlike modern engagements in the West, according to Jewish custom, betrothal was a legally binding relationship that was the first stage of marriage that usually lasted for about one year. During this time “the betrothed girl was legally the man’s wife even though she was still a virgin, since the marital relation did not begin until the nuptial ceremony. The betrothal could be annulled only by a formal written divorce or death.”[i] Joseph could make the matter public, running the risk that Mary might be punished as an adulteress, possibly stoned to death. But Joseph doesn’t want to hurt Mary or cause her further shame. Joseph’s plan to divorce Mary discreetly “would leave both his righteousness (his conformity to the law) and his compassion intact.”[ii] Joseph is, for the right reasons, about to do the wrong thing, but God intervenes.[iii]
In Joseph’s well-meaning incomprehension, we have a first glimpse of a powerfully important theme in Matthew’s Gospel, namely, that for human beings to know the ways of God and His Christ, those ways must be revealed to them. We cannot attain to this knowledge and faith by our “own reason and strength.” Whether it is the difference between those who do not repent at Jesus’ miracles and those who do (Matthew 11:25-28) or those on whom the seed of the Word falls in vain and those in whom the seed bears fruit (Matthew 13:1-9), what makes the difference is that humans fail to understand unless God reveals His purposes to save in Jesus.[iv]
The Lord sends an angel to Joseph in a dream. But don’t dwell too long on the means by which God spoke to him. We’ve all had too many strange dreams to trust them for guidance in life. The means is not the point. It is the message of the angel that matters. The angel addresses Joseph as “son of David,” not to awaken the heroic mood, as has been suggested by some commentators, but to emphasize the thought of the legal acknowledgment and adoption of the child in Mary’s womb.
The message is twofold. First, he tells Joseph not to fear. This is a common message from God to His people, for the causes of fear are many. Second, he tells Joseph the baby is from the Holy Spirit. If the call not to fear requires faith, even more does the possibility of a divine conception. As he preaches on the Christmas Gospel according to Luke, Luther makes a big deal about Mary’s faith. As Matthew tells it, Joseph’s faith stands out as particularly remarkable. It takes faith to believe what he hears, and it takes faith to act obediently in response.
The angel tells Joseph that he should not fear to take home, publicly accept, Mary as his wife, that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. Mary will give birth to a son, and Joseph as legal father is to name the child Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.
What is more, this is not some failing on Mary’s part. This is all according to God’s plan. Matthew explains, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matthew 1:22-23).
In Matthew, we can see how Jesus and His contemporaries read the Bible—and how we should read it. There is a bigger picture that affects the individual words. Often, they are written in such a way that they have a deliberate double meaning. There is often a confession, a prayer, or an expectation in the name given to a child. In the name Jesus, there is an attribute, a prophecy about this child’s mission: “For He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Immanuel has the same significance; it says that “God is with us.”
This has often been misused. It has been given the meaning “God agrees with us,” that He stands by our side when we engage in conflicts or even in war. But it has a much deeper meaning here. God should really be against us for the way we’ve behaved, broken His Commandments, gone against His will, and destroyed His creation. He has every reason to be against us and let us suffer the consequences of our fall. But He is on our side. He made our loss His loss. He descended to live with us, to suffer with us, and to share all the consequences of our evil actions with us. All this happened through Mary’s Son. This is why He received the name, Jesus, the Savior.[v]
Matthew was writing primarily to Jews, who were familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures and were looking forward to the fulfillment of the promises of the Lord’s prophets. So, he pointed out that the birth of Jesus was taking place exactly as the Lord had promised through His prophet (Isaiah 7:14).[vi]
The unusual circumstances of this prophecy are most interesting. We just heard them in our Old Testament reading. King Ahaz of Judah was threatened by the kings of Israel and Syria. These kings wanted to destroy the dynasty of Ahaz, which was the line from which the Savior was to be born. Ahaz personally deserved nothing better, but Ahaz’s unworthiness could not prevent God from keeping His gracious promises. So, Isaiah went to Ahaz and assured him that the Lord would preserve him from his powerful enemies. He even offered Ahaz the opportunity to ask for a special sign from the Lord to prove that this was a promise from God that would surely be fulfilled. Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, but the Lord said He would provide a sign anyway. Even if Ahaz would never see this sign himself and would not appreciate this promise of a sign from God, it would be a source of comfort and reassurance for many other people all through the ages.[vii]
This is the sign: “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” This would happen only once in all human history, so the special son of the virgin mother could be positively identified and recognized. This special child would be called Immanuel, which means, “God with us.” This child would be God incarnate, the eternal God visibly among us in human flesh and blood.[viii]
What an astounding revelation the angel has for Joseph! His doubts about Mary’s faithfulness are removed. In their place. Joseph receives the amazing, good news that he will have the privilege of caring for God’s Son, the promised Messiah, the Redeemer of the world![ix]
Ahaz, a son of David in the eighth century B.C., did not accept God’s offer of a sign, nor believe in the significance of the Child who was promised in Isaiah 7:14. By contrast, Joseph as the descendant and heir of David does accept God’s offered sign and does believe what God declares about the Child present in the Virgin Mary’s womb. By God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, Joseph believes the angel and obeys His commands. He takes Mary home without delay. Therefore, the child according to Jewish law and justice, becomes Joseph’s heir and descendant. The boy Jesus then belongs to the house and line of David. This public recognition will save the honor of Mary and that of her child. For instead of being the fruit of adultery, the Child which is to be born of her is of the Holy Spirit, begotten by deliberate intervention of God, against the course of nature.[x]
Joseph’s simple acceptance of the angel’s words is an act of faith like those of the great heroes of the Old Testament, to believe the Lord absolutely, despite all the contrary evidence. Nevertheless, it is not Joseph who is the central figure of this story: God is; God always is. God is working out a much bigger story than Joseph could ever imagine. Eugene Peterson suggests this is how it is for the people of God: “When we submit our lives to what we read in scripture, we find that we are not being led to see God in our stories but our stories in God’s. God is the larger context and plot in which our stories find themselves.”[xi]
The challenge (for Joseph, and for us) is that we tend to think of it the other way around. We generally imagine ourselves as the central figure in our lives, the stars of our own show. This is a result of our limitations. We can only see through our own two eyes, which happen to be laser-focused on our own concerns, our own responsibilities, and our own capabilities. This leads us to think and act in ways which are remarkably narrow and usually selfish. Facing hard times, we look out for ourselves, grab what we can, giving no thought to the needs of others. We try to pass the blame on others rather than admitting our fault. We throw a pity party and question why God doesn’t seem to be helping us out.
God opens Joseph’s eyes to see something much bigger. An angel from the Lord expands Joseph’s perspective to see how Mary’s extramarital pregnancy is, in fact, the work of the Holy Spirit. As Isaiah had prophesied eight centuries earlier, God is coming to be with His people in the flesh. This child will be God’s instrument for saving people from their sin. This promise broadens Joseph’s perspective. It changes his mind and determines his course of action. Certainly, still afraid (and in need of several other divine dreams for further guidance), but now emboldened to be faithful, the man without control takes Mary to be his wife and serves as the adoptive father of Jesus. In doing so, Joseph fulfills his small part in God’s much bigger story.
As you go about your life, you may find things not going according to your plan. Maybe your 401K took a big hit this year and with inflation retirement seems a lot further away than it did a couple years ago. Maybe the doctor has given just given you or a loved one an upsetting diagnosis and you’re looking at an uncertain future. Maybe someone seems to have betrayed you and you’re not sure if you can ever trust the again. Maybe your life has gotten chaotic due to circumstances beyond your control and there’s just nothing you can do about it.
Such times might seem like a problem, especially if you insist on having things your own way. But I challenge you to recognize how your lack of control is good news. It is good news because the One with the plan, the One who is in control, has come to be “God with us.” You are a part of God’s bigger story of salvation. Through Joseph’s adopted son, Jesus, God is saving His people from their sin. By virtue of your baptism, you are now part of that people. In the water and Word, the Father has adopted you as His own dear child, an heir of His Kingdom, a co-heir with Christ. He has poured out upon you His Holy Spirit, granting you forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.
Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. For the sake of Jesus, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Richard A. Batey, New Testament Nuptial Imagery (Leiden: Brill, 1971), 13, cited in Mitchell, Song of Songs, 119.
[ii] Carson, Matthew, 75; similar is Hagner, Matthew, 1:18. A modern reader might think that Joseph is behaving like some sort of legalist in not “accepting” Mary even though she (presumably) had sinned. However, according to Deuteronomy 22:13-29, Mary, if pregnant by another man, should have been stoned. That Joseph intended to divorce her shows that he affirmed the biblical condemnation of adultery as sin, but that he gave no thought to capital punishment shows the triumph of mercy (cf. John 8:3-11). Keener, Matthew, 92-94, explains that in the first century Jewish context, Joseph is expressing extraordinary compassion in deciding to divorce Mary secretly, thus both avoiding bringing unnecessary shame on her and eschewing any possible financial profit that could have rightfully been his by impounding Mary’s dowry and perhaps even regaining the bride price that Joseph may have paid at the time of the betrothal. Cf. Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, 4.7 (NPNF1 10:23).
[iii] Jeffrey A. Gibbs. Matthew. Concordia Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 104-05.
[iv] Jeffrey A. Gibbs. Matthew. Concordia Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 105.
[v] Bo Giertz, translated by Richard Wood with Bror Erickson. To Live with Christ: Devotions by Bo Giertz. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 68-69.
[vi] G. Jerome and Michael J. Albrecht. Matthew. People’s Bible Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 21-22.
[vii] G. Jerome and Michael J. Albrecht. Matthew. People’s Bible Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 22.
[viii] G. Jerome and Michael J. Albrecht. Matthew. People’s Bible Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 22.
[ix] G. Jerome and Michael J. Albrecht. Matthew. People’s Bible Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 22.
[x] Paul E. Kretzmann. Popular Commentary of the Bible: New Testament, Volume I. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 4-5.
[xi] Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. (Eerdmans, 2009.) 44.