v.18 Now what follows clearly assumes that Matthew’s readers already knew about the Lord’s birth, knew who Joseph and Mary were, knew about the virgin birth. The “reverent reserve” with which the Gospel writers speak of the virginal conception is characteristic of the delicacy with which they deal with divine mysteries and, as any number of scholars have pointed out through the ages, is quite untypical of pagan myths and legends. But, notice again, Matthew’s interest is not simply to give an account of Christ’s birth – he really says nothing about his birth – but to demonstrate his divine origin and that his coming was prophesied in the Old Testament. In fact, the word the NIV properly translates “birth” in v. 18 is the same word translated “genealogy” in 1:1. Matthew is after the record of the Lord’s origin. Matthew, as we said last week, is not simply telling the story, he is making a case.
v.19 Matthew tells the story of the Lord’s birth from Joseph’s perspective as Luke tells it from Mary’s. In fact, you will find as you read chapters 1 and 2 that it is Joseph, in every case, who does what needs to be done. Mary is scarcely mentioned. He was the faithful father of the Messiah. This is probably due to Matthew’s concentration on the royal ancestry of Jesus, which ancestry was reckoned through Joseph his father, not Mary his mother.
You can see by the term “divorce” that betrothal had a greater legal significance than it does in our culture today. If the male fiancé died during the betrothal the woman was called a widow. An engagement in our day may be broken without any legal step needing to be taken. Not so in that day. Joseph was a righteous man and a compassionate one. He could have exposed her sin publicly but he did not want to do that to her. It is helpful to remember that betrothal usually took place when the girl was in her early or middle teens.
v.20 We might read the beginning of v. 20 as: “But when he had made up his mind…” that is, to divorce Mary, the angel appeared to him in a dream and convinced him to do otherwise. No doubt Mary had protested her innocence and Joseph had been unable to believe her. Now the angel confirms what she had no doubt pled with Joseph to believe. Notice that Joseph is addressed as “son of David.” Matthew is reminding us that Jesus hails from the royal line.
v.21 Joseph is instructed to “call his name Jesus,” a characteristically Jewish way of speaking. By giving him this name Joseph was formally and officially accepting the child as his own and Jesus thus became himself a “son of David.” “Jesus” as a name, both by its sound (it sounds like “he will save”) and its etymology (which was “Yahweh is salvation”) means “savior.” [France, 78]
Now the people were expecting that the Messiah would “save” them, but they thought he would save them from the Romans. Jesus’ mission was of a different kind. Right here at the beginning Matthew reminds us, as one commentator put it, in reference to Dorothy Sayers famous play, that “Jesus was not so much the Man born to be King, as he was The Man born to be Saviour.” [Barclay in Morris, 30] This is important to see at the outset because many will come away from the Gospel of Matthew with the impression that Matthew is more interested in upright living than in the way of salvation. It is true that Matthew does not have the same emphases as does the Apostle Paul, for example, but they present the same Savior, the same salvation by grace through faith, and, very clearly, the same Christian life. There is grace abounding in the Gospel of Matthew as we shall see. In any case, salvation from sin was not what the Jews of that day were expecting from the Messiah and Matthew, at the very outset, alerts his readers to the fact that Jesus’ mission was very different than what the people were expecting the Messiah’s mission to be.
v.23 Vv. 22 and 23 are most likely an aside by Matthew rather than the words of the angel. Matthew is a teacher: he will not only tell the story, but explain its significance. [Hagner, 20] We said last time that it was characteristic of Matthew to emphasize that the events of Christ’s life were the fulfillment of the prophecies of the ancient Scriptures. Here he says that Isa. 7:14 had its fulfillment in the birth of Jesus.
So far as we know, no one called Jesus “Immanuel.” It was not his name in the sense that Jesus was. It is more the description of his life than his given name.
v.25 The natural sense of the “until” is that Joseph and Mary had a normal married life after Jesus was born, contrary to the Roman Catholic doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The natural sense of Jesus being called her “firstborn” in Luke is that Mary had other children and that the “brothers” of Jesus mentioned in Matt. 12:46 were also her children by Joseph, also contrary to the notion that she remained a virgin the rest of her life.
And so the kingdom of God came upon the world. In this “wonderful mixing of the miraculous and the ordinary, the divine and the human” [Hagner, 21] a good man is presented with the a terrible dilemma: his betrothed is pregnant. He loved her and was a gentle and compassionate man. Husbands take note: even in the depths of his disappointment, even despite what must have been his sense of having been betrayed, he wanted to be tender and compassionate toward her. Such is the behavior of a righteous man. She had betrayed him, so he had every reason to believe, but he, no doubt after struggling with himself and working mightily to corral his feelings, abandoned thoughts of revenge and looked for a way to break the engagement without exposing her to public humiliation or even more serious punishment. Such is the conduct of a righteous man.
Matthew is, as we have noticed, demonstrating the claims of the Lord Jesus to be the long awaited and long promised Messiah. But, is it not deeply interesting and wonderfully important that as he reveals the origin and the biblical credentials of Jesus, he acquaints us with Joseph, a righteous man, through whose name and lineage Jesus of Nazareth would lay claim to the throne of David. This passage is all about the divine initiative, and the divine credentials of Jesus Christ, but, at the same time, it is about the righteous man through whose righteousness the Lord Jesus is given his place in the world. All through the Gospel there is this interweaving of the life of God and man, of God’s grace and man’s faithful response to that grace.
Matthew uses the adjective “righteous” or “just,” as we have it of Joseph in v. 19, much more than any other Gospel writer and as many times as the Apostle Paul himself for whom, as you may know, it is a key term. He is going to include in his Gospel much of the Lord’s teaching about the righteous living to which he calls his followers. In speaking about our life and living he will tell us that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees we will not see the kingdom of God. What it means to live righteously is a major theme in Matthew.
Jesus Christ came to make us righteous. He was himself perfectly righteous. He summons us to be righteous after him. And he gives us examples of people like Joseph, to show us what righteousness is. It is not the means to human life, as if we could be righteous enough to earn God’s favor. Jesus came to save us from our sins. He had to do that for us, we could not do it ourselves. But righteousness is what God is after in our lives. He saves us that we might be righteous and live righteously. He saves us to be a man like Joseph. And all of this is wonderfully revealed here as we learn about Joseph’s righteousness even as Jesus is revealed to us as the Savior of the world. We might think that in a text about the Son of God there would be no space left to speak of a Galilean peasant, but no, even in as spartan a narrative as this one, we are taught both about Christ and about the man who was his earthly father.
Joseph, interestingly, is a largely forgotten player in the drama of the birth of Jesus Christ. Search the Christmas hymns you know. You can find any number of references to Mary, to the angels, to the shepherds; but hardly a one mentions Joseph. Matthew, however, wants us to know about Joseph and not only because it was through Joseph that the Lord Christ lay claim to the throne of David. Matthew wants us to know of his righteousness, his moral and spiritual goodness. He wants us to see that righteousness in action. He calls our attention to it. Matthew is telling us that if Mary is blessed above all women, the same thing can be said about Joseph, her espoused husband: he was blessed above all men. The Lord God chose righteous people to be the parents of his Son, a righteous woman and a righteous man.
We would like to know more about the man God chose to be the formative influence of Jesus’ boyhood and perhaps his early manhood. But we know some things. He was a man of modest means. We know that because in Luke 2:24 we read that at the consecration of his baby son in the temple, Joseph offered for his sacrifice a pair of doves or young pigeons. That was the sacrifice permitted in the law of Moses for families too poor to afford a goat or a lamb. I hope that is a great encouragement to those of you whose means are limited and likely to remain so. God chose not a rich man, not a powerful man, not an influential man, but a man of modest means and no reputation to be the father of the King of Kings.
We know he was a carpenter or, perhaps more accurately, an artisan. He made things with his hands, out of wood; implements perhaps; or he was a builder. We know he must have died while Jesus was still a boy or a young man, for by the time the Lord’s ministry began Joseph was no longer on the scene. We know he was a wise man to have chosen such a spiritually minded girl for his bride. And we know that he was a good father from the fact that his other children, once brought to faith, were people of such outstanding character. We know of James the Just who became the leader of the church in Jerusalem and the author of the book that bears his name in the New Testament; and we know a little something of Jude another NT author.
We don’t know much more than this about him besides what Matthew tells us here. We are tempted to think that he may not have had the intellectual gifts of his young bride. There is no Magnificat from his pen. But that may be a false impression conveyed by the very brief and selective narrative of Christ’s birth and childhood that we have in Matthew and Luke.
But what Matthew tells us about Joseph is what is most important. If Matthew is going to teach us in some detail what it means to live a righteous life in the faith of Jesus Christ, then he has already, at the very beginning of his Gospel, given us a picture of that life in the portrait he paints of Joseph. I’m sure the Holy Spirit saw to Matthew writing as he did about Joseph because the Lord Jesus wanted to honor his father and to draw attention to his godliness, that godliness upon which Jesus had so depended and from which he had learned so much growing up in the home of the carpenter from Nazareth. And if imitation is the sincerest form of honor and respect, then it is ours to imitate Joseph and to do that we must know in what his righteousness consisted.
- The first thing to say about this righteous man was that he was obedient; he observed the commandments of God.
If you quickly scan the first two chapters of the Gospel of Matthew you will see this point illustrated a number of times. Joseph obeyed the commandments the Lord gave him, however difficult, unquestioningly, uncomplainingly, unhesitatingly. He obeyed the angel and took the pregnant Mary home to wife. You have only to imagine the difficulties this must have presented him, the stain on his reputation that he could do nothing to remove. He gave his son the name he had been instructed to give him. In 2:13, in obedience to another command delivered by an angel, he took his family to Egypt – no simple thing for folk with little money; in 2:19 he returned home in obedience to still another command. We see him in Luke, similarly, taking care to observe all the requirements of God’s law: the baby’s circumcision, the presentation of him in the temple, the offering of the appropriate sacrifice. Indeed, Luke makes a point of saying in 2:39 that Joseph and Mary did everything required by the Law of the Lord.
This is preeminently what it means to be a righteous man as Joseph was. He kept the Lord’s commandments, he took seriously his obligations to live by the Word of God. Try as you might – and many Christians have tried very hard – you cannot escape the fact that God the Father expects his children to keep his commandments and Jesus expects the same of his followers. “If you love me,” he once said, “you will keep my commandments.” Joseph loved God and kept his commandments.
And, no doubt, he modeled, he exemplified that scrupulous care to obey the Lord before his son as Jesus was growing up. Jesus also became a carpenter. He learned his trade by working beside his father. And at Joseph’s side he learned to do one’s work as unto the Lord. There is even a legend – perhaps too good to be true – that over the door of that carpenter’s shop in Nazareth was a sign that read: “My yokes are easy.” Whether the sign was there or not, we can believe that the yokes made first by Joseph and then by Joseph’s son and apprentice were light and easy and well-fitting, so that, so far as it depended on them, never a dumb animal suffered because of poor workmanship. [J.S. Stewart, Life of Christ, 30]
No wonder that the man, Jesus Christ, should grow up saying that he came to do his Father’s will, that he had to be about his Father’s business, when he had, as a boy and a young man, learned how to live and how to work from a father whose great purpose in life was to do all that his heavenly Father told him to do.
- But Joseph in his righteousness was not only an obedient man, he was a tender hearted, compassionate, and merciful man.
What a poignant picture is painted for us in so few words in v. 19. He, of course, had no choice but to draw the conclusion that he had. His betrothed had betrayed him, had been unfaithful to him. Perhaps it was just after Mary returned from the South, from those three months spent with her relative Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea. She had begun to show. Imagine that conversation between the innocent maid and her devoted and now completely crushed young husband. You can easily imagine Mary’s pain as she realizes that he does not and cannot believe her story. Why should he? Why would anyone believe that his fiancée, his bride, was the only woman in the history of the world to have conceived without the aid of a lover. What else could he conclude but that she was lying to him and so heaping one infidelity upon another.
How much more beautiful, then, his response. Not the wounded pride we might we have expected of a typical man, even a believing man; not the desire for revenge, not even a determination to defend himself and his reputation, to ensure that everyone knows he had nothing to do with this pregnancy.
No, he loved her still, protected her still, sought her best still. She had betrayed him, but, to the end, he would not betray her. Here is a man putting the interests of even his adulterous wife above his own; a man returning blessing for cursing. And so, answering the demand of his conscience, he decided to pursue a divorce, but the demands of grace and mercy would be served at the same time. The divorce would be private, known to only a few and the reason for it, as much as possible, be kept a secret. This is nothing short of magnificent! What a sterling man Joseph was!
How much like the Father would the Son become; or, better, how much like his Son was the Father already! And how much like the father must all who love the Son aspire to be, all who have been loved with the same invincible love with which Joseph loved Mary, who, so far as he knew, had betrayed her.
And how delighted must be our Savior when we love one another, when husbands and wives and parents and children and brothers and sisters love one another with that same tenderness and sympathy and unwillingness to hurt, that same tenacity of commitment that Jesus himself learned by watching his Father love his mother in that happy home in Nazareth.
- Finally, beyond Joseph’s strict obedience and his sterling love and compassion, there is also, at the bottom of both, this striking and beautiful humility.
Here is perhaps the character of this righteous man at its foundation and at its summit, this humility that shines so brightly in even this spartan narrative. If, as Pascal once said, without humility all our graces are but vices; if, as Augustine said, the three great virtues of the Christian life are humility, humility, and humility; then, is it any wonder that such a humble man as Joseph was should be granted the honor of being the father of the Son of God.
Here was a man who finds out about the soon-coming of the Messiah long after his wife does; it is an arrangement for which he had not bargained, and yet, like Mary before him, he accepts it unconditionally as the will and calling of God. He marries and foregoes a sexual relationship with his wife for months, again, because he is so ready to think that other considerations far outweigh his own pleasures and rights as a man and as a husband.
The Savior is to be born, but his wife has the privilege of biological involvement with the incarnation. In this respect, he is a bystander. He was from the beginning and no doubt realized from the beginning that he would always be Jesus’ “step-father” and never his father as Mary was his mother. “It takes more grace than I can tell to play the second fiddle well.” Mary received a prophecy from the aged Simeon in the temple, but there was none for Joseph.
But in all Joseph’s willing consent to undertake his divinely ordered role, secondary as it was in some important ways, in all his willingness to let the Lord completely turn his life upside down; in all his cheerful consent to his young wife’s prominence in these once-for-ever events, Joseph said to the Lord as profoundly as Mary did, “Let it be to me as you have said.”
Here is a man prepared to take the place the Lord assigned without complaint, to let the Lord determine his lot; here is a man who does not think so highly of himself that he cannot stand to see others placed higher. Rather, here is a man, schooled in the ancient faith of Israel, a poor man but learned in the university of sin and grace, who regards all his blessings as the Lord’s mercy to him and is too grateful that God should be merciful to him a sinner to care that others may seem to have more than he. And in this, how like the Son was that Father, and how like the people we all ought to aspire to be who have been loved in defiance of our sins by an everlasting love.
Here is the man whom our Heavenly Father wanted to be a formative influence in the life of his beloved and only son when he sent him into the world. Which tells you, does it not, what the Almighty thinks about obedience, compassion, and humility.
And what was this man’s reward? The old medieval prayer of St. Joseph put it this way: speaking of Joseph’s relationship to Christ, the Messiah, the Son of David, the Savior of sinners, the King of Kings:
Non solum videre et audire,
Sed portare, deosculari,
Vestire et custodire.
O felicem virum!
Well, you cannot be the Lord’s earthly father or mother. There could be but one of those. But your relationship to him, in a similar way, your nearness to him, and his to you, will always be determined to a great degree by your obedience (in loyalty to the one who loved you and saved you), by your compassion for others (in imitation of his compassion for you), and by your humility before God and man (in recognition that his mercy was granted you when you were his enemy). And one thing more, for those of you who are parents. The promise of this text is that the more you are like Joseph, the more your children will grow up to be like his son!