We noted in the genealogy of Jesus that there was a lot of scandals recorded in those names. But this is not going to be the end to the scandalous nature of Jesus’ beginnings. Yet these difficult beginnings are to give us hope and build our faith in our savior. Open your copies of God’s word to Matthew 1:18-25. It is a curious beginning because it starts with telling us that this is how the birth of Jesus took place. Yet it is now going tell us about these events from Joseph’s perspective. Luke’s account tells us about these events from Mary’s perspective. But here in Matthew we are going to consider Joseph.
A Troublesome Start (1:18-19)
We are told in Matthew 1:18 that Mary had been betrothed to Joseph. Betrothal is not something that we have in our culture today. There are some similarities to being engaged but it is not the same thing. A Jewish betrothal was as binding as marriage and could not be broken except through divorce. So they are covenantally pledged to each other but not formally married yet. But then Mary is found to be pregnant. Now imagine being Joseph in this situation. There is only one obvious conclusion to draw from this circumstance. Mary has clearly been unfaithful to him. You can only imagine what this would have looked like in conversation. Joseph, I want you to know that I am pregnant but I have not been with anyone else.
Now I want you to think about Joseph’s situation especially in Jewish society. He only has two choices. The first choice is to stay with Mary despite her perceived infidelity. The problem with this for Joseph is that the society is going to assume his sin. If he stays with Mary, then he must be the father and therefore they committed sin by being together before they were married. We are told in verse 19 that Joseph is a righteous man. The only other option is to divorce Mary for her infidelity. This is exactly what he is thinking in verse 19. Joseph is wrestling with what to do. Listen to what the Law of Moses said about this circumstance:
“If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 22:23–24 ESV)
Verses 13-21 of Deuteronomy 22 set the same parameters that if your wife was found not to be a virgin at marriage, then she was to be stoned by the city for the outrageous thing that had been done. All Joseph has to do is take Mary to the elders of the city, lay the charge of sexual immorality on her, and let the judgment of the judges take over. Joseph has every right to shame Mary.
But I want you to see something important about Joseph’s character. Joseph is a righteous man and he has resolved to divorce Mary for her infidelity. But I want you to see something here. We are told that he was unwilling to put Mary to shame. Though decided to divorce Mary, he is going to choose to do it quietly. Joseph could have publicly condemned her as an adulterous. She could have been put on display as unfaithful under the law. But he is a righteous man and he does not do it. He does not choose to publicly disgrace her. How many married people decide to publicly shame their spouse over things far less than this? How many times do we try to disgrace others for what they have done to us? I want us to see the righteousness of Joseph at this moment. He rightfully thinks he has been deeply wronged. Yet he is still thinking about Mary. He is putting the interests of others ahead of himself. He returning good upon those who he thinks have done evil against him.
God’s Eternal Saving Purpose (1:20-23)
It is a moment where Joseph’s faith and righteousness is being tested. God could have immediately told Joseph everything that was going on. But God did not do this. Instead, he allows Joseph to consider his options and think about what he is going to do. Once Joseph has come to his decision, God now steps in. As Joseph has decided that he will put Mary away for unfaithfulness, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream with a message. Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. God now intervenes so that his plan will be accomplished. But have you thought about why this all had to happen in this way? Why can’t we have a repeat of Abraham and Sarah for a miraculous birth? Why can’t we have a repeat of Zechariah and Elizabeth for a miraculous birth? Why the virgin birth and why are we twice told that the conception is from the Holy Spirit?
We noted the importance of the virgin birth in our last lesson. The virgin birth represents God’s need to save from outside of humanity. Nothing from or within humanity has the power to save. So God must come from outside the human will to accomplish salvation. There is another aspect to the importance of the virgin birth that is found in the original prophecy. Isaiah 7 records the prophecy that Matthew is quoting in Matthew 1:23.
The context of Isaiah 7 is very important to God’s message regarding the child to be born. In Isaiah 7 we read about a king named Ahaz who rules over the nation of Judah. He has a problem. The problem is that two nations, Syria and Israel, have joined forces to attack Judah. The whole nation is afraid as these armies have come up for war at the city of Jerusalem. The Lord sends Isaiah to give King Ahaz a message. The message is very simple. Do not afraid of these two nations. Their plans will not stand. These nations are going to be turned away. “But if do not stand firm in your faith, then you will not stand at all” (Isaiah 7:9). Then the Lord tells Ahaz to ask for a sign to prove that this is going to happen, even though it appears to be against all odds and all possibility. Ahaz refuses under the guise of piety. He has no interesting in listening to the Lord or seeking the Lord. But the Lord says he will give a sign anyway. This is where the quotation comes in about a virgin bearing a son whose name will be Immanuel.
The point of the sign is to show that God still rules and is going to be a deliverer for his people. Just as he sent Moses and Samuel to be deliverers and just as he brought about Samson through a miraculous birth to show that these were God’s designated saviors, so now Jesus is declared the ultimate savior of the world. But this time this savior is not going to just save from Egypt like Moses. This savior is not going to deliver from the Philistines like Samson. This savior is not going to rescue from the hands of Syria or Babylon or some other nation. That is too small a work for this savior. This savior is going to save the world from their worst enemies: sin and death. The virgin birth sign is the declaration for what Jesus is going to do. The virgin birth signifies victory over all enemies of God and his people.
The second picture is just as amazing. The angel says that the child that has been conceived is from the Holy Spirit. Why is this said twice? Why is it so important to note that this has been done from the Holy Spirit? Why not just say we have a miracle on our hands? God wants us to see even more. This is from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit in the scriptures always represents new life, new hope, and a new era. In the beginning when the world was formless and void we are told that Spirit was hovering over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2). What is being signified? Life is about to happen. A new era is about to begin. A new creation has come. Now the Holy Spirit has conceived this child signifying that new life is found in this child. A new era is about to begin in this child. New hope is offered through this child. A new creation is coming with this child. Everything is about to change in the world when the child is born. We will truly see in this child that God is with us. Life and light is coming to a dark and empty world.
Joseph’s Decision (1:24-25)
Joseph awakes from his dream and does exactly as the angel commanded him. Joseph does not divorce Mary but marries her instead. Joseph obeys despite the scandal that would be carried about from this. She is going to have a child even though Joseph will not be physically intimate with her until after she gives birth. There is not going to be any mistake about this being a virgin birth. Matthew 1:16 makes it clear that Joseph is not the father. Joseph is the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born. It is a scandalous beginning to the story of Jesus’ birth which is even alluded to later in Jesus’ life (cf. John 8:41).
But we should expect a scandalous beginning because the purpose given to Jesus is equally scandalous. The message of this chapter is that God has returned. They will call the son Immanuel which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). This is a monumental statement. God has come and is living with us again. The purpose of God to live with his people has restarted. It ended with the destruction of the temple. The imagery of the temple was to show that God was with his people. God destroyed that temple for their sins. But now God has returned to be with his people. God does not cancel his plans. God does not give up on his purposes. God does not fail at his word.
Yet this is the scandal of the king. A holy God desires to live with a sinful people. The world is worthy of judgment and death yet God has come to save them so he can be with them. The people do not deserve it. In fact, the people deserve public disgrace for all the sins they have committed. The people deserve for this relationship to end. God should put us away for our sinfulness. But God so loves us and so desires to be with us that he does not put us away for our unfaithfulness and infidelity. Instead, he takes us and marries us. God is going to wash us and cleanse us so that we can be presented to him in splendor without spot or blemish (Ephesians 5:26-27). We are experiencing new life, new hope, a new era, and are a new creation because God came to earth for us. God with us means that we are given a fresh start. God has started again to live with his people. Like Joseph, we are called to have great faith in the word of God and to do exactly as we have been commanded to enjoy his new hope, new life, and restored blessings.