(Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 2:1-20)
Mary spent the first three months of her supernatural pregnancy in Judea with her cousin Elizabeth. Meanwhile, Joseph was back in Nazareth, oblivious that a miracle had occurred. But he was soon to find out.
Mary Discovered to be Pregnant (Matthew 1:18)
Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way: While his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was discovered to be with child by the Holy Spirit.
In essence, Matthew summarizes the same information Luke gave—but with one big difference. It was discovered (“found,” KJV) that she was pregnant before she and Joseph came together in marriage. The use of the word discovered means it wasn’t something Mary revealed to him. We aren’t told how Joseph discovered it. But by the time Mary got back from Judea, and as the pregnancy continued, it would have become obvious to those who saw her. And it isn’t difficult to surmise that someone went and told Joseph about it.
Though Matthew says, “she was discovered to be with child by the Holy Spirit,” it is clear the miraculous aspect of the birth wasn’t discovered by Joseph when he first heard about it.
Joseph’s Righteous Response (Matthew 1:19-20a)
Then Joseph her [betrothed] husband, being righteous, and not wanting to make a public spectacle of her, determined to put her away secretly. But while he thought on these things…
How Would You Respond?
Joseph receives word that his fiancé, the one he contracted to marry, has turned up pregnant—and there is only one thing he knows for sure: It isn’t his. The immediate, human reaction would be shock, sadness, hurt, and anger. After all, to Joseph this is a betrayal of a covenant, a disruption/shattering of his plans and hopes of the future.
Many people would react by immediately ending the engagement, and spreading to the world that they were cheated on by their fiancé. In other words, many people seek revenge when they are wronged (or think they are wronged), and want to cause as much damage to the other person’s reputation as possible. Others might be willing to forgive, but only after verbally and emotionally beating down the “offender,” making them grovel and beg for forgiveness, and making sure they know they are scum. In other words, they will only consider forgiveness (if you can even call it that) when they think they’ve made the “offender” hurt enough—but they make sure to have it ready to bring back up at a moment’s notice if necessary.
But Joseph? He didn’t respond that way at all.
The Righteous Response
Matthew tells us Joseph was “righteous” (“a just man,” KJV). And then he shows us what a righteous response is when we are hurt.
He did not want to make a public spectacle of her. In other words, he acted out of what was best for her. Certainly other people knew she was with child, and that it wasn’t Joseph’s (and you can imagine the whispering, What exactly was she doing when she was gone for three months?). This was embarrassing enough, and (in Joseph’s mind) Mary would have felt ashamed—Joseph wasn’t about to add to that pain and shame by making a public spectacle of her.
He decided to put her away (end the betrothal) quietly (NIV) or secretly (NASB). The Law of Moses had rules for these types of situations—and in all cases, at least one person (always the man, and in some cases the woman too) was to be killed by stoning. That would be a very public thing, which would draw more attention to Mary’s (supposed) actions. And Joseph wasn’t going to shame her more.
When you are hurt, do you try to get revenge on the one who hurt you? A righteous person won’t. Let that sink in.
Then Joseph contemplated the whole matter. He had made up his mind to put her away, but was still thinking about the whole situation. The point is, he didn’t act immediately. He took the time to make sure he thought it through. In other words, he did not let his emotions dictate his response. And why? Because righteous people don’t act on emotions, they act on thoughtfulness.
So he thinks about her instead of himself. He has compassion. He knows something must be done, but wants to make it as quiet as possible so as not to bring her more shame. And even after making that determination, he takes more time to contemplate it.
Then he sleeps on it (see verse 24) before carrying out anything.
All I Have to Do is Dream (Matthew 1:20b-21)
…behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary to you to be your wife; because that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a son, and you shall call his name “Jesus,” because He will save His people from their sins.”
A Messenger Appears
While Luke gives us the name of the angel who appeared to Zacharias and Mary, we aren’t told who appeared to Joseph in this dream. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which angel it was. All that matters is this messenger1 was from God.
He addresses him as “Joseph, son of David.” This is a subtle reminder about just who is in line for the throne of David. At this point, it is Joseph. In order for Jesus to be the King, the true heir of David’s throne, Joseph had to marry Mary.
The Messenger’s Message
Joseph made up his mind, but hadn’t carried through with it yet, when he has a dream. And in the dream, an angel tells him to go ahead and marry Mary. Why? Because even though it appeared like she had done something wrong, sinned against Joseph, she actually hadn’t. Instead, according to the angel, her pregnancy was as a result of the Holy Spirit.
I have had some crazy dreams before, but once I woke up, I didn’t think they were real. Of course, I don’t recall seeing any angels in my dreams either. But Joseph knows this messenger of God is not just a dream, but is telling him the truth. And that takes a lot of faith, because he is being asked to believe something that has never happened before in the history of mankind! He is being asked to believe something that goes against his emotions, something that goes against his understanding of how the world works. And outside of words (from the dream-angel, and potentially from Mary), he has no evidence that it is true.
Joseph chose to believe.
Generally speaking, we don’t like being wrong—and frequently people (even Christians) will reject, ignore, or minimize evidence that might prove them wrong. We would rather dig in our heels and defend our first impression, our emotional response, because there’s no way we could be wrong…
But a righteous person is willing to (1) listen to the evidence, (2) do it with a truly open mind, and then (3) act on the evidence, not on emotion.
The Meaning of the Message
The angel reveals to Joseph that Mary is pregnant with a son—and not just any son, but a Son who is a Savior. And in addition to marrying Mary, Joseph had another role to play—he was to call the Son Jesus. It is interesting that Gabriel tells Mary she was going to name Him Jesus.2 Here, and angel tells Matthew he will name the child Jesus. And when Matthew gives the prophecy fulfilled explanation,3 he quotes Isaiah 7:14 as “they shall call His name…” It all works together.
As we saw last time, the name Jesus means Jehovah is Salvation or Jehovah Saves. Joseph probably knew this, but the angel explains anyway, “You will call his name Jesus, because He will save…” But what Joseph probably didn’t know (if he was like the majority of Jews) is that this salvation wasn’t from human oppression (like Rome), but from sin.
Ultimately, it is sin that we need salvation from. It is sin that separates us from God. And if we die separated from God, we will stay separated from Him forever. Heaven is not great because it is a place. Heaven is great because God and Jesus are there. And the only way we can have the joy of eternally being in God’s presence is by being saved from our sins.
Matthew, I am sure, drops that little nugget in the angel’s message to give his Jewish readers a heads-up that God’s Messiah isn’t what they were expecting.
Prophecy Fulfilled! (Matthew 1:22-23)
Now all this was done, so that what the Lord said by the prophet might be fulfilled, specifically, “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which being interpreted is “God with us.”
Matthew’s First Explanation of Events
Matthew, repeatedly in his gospel account, wants to make sure his readers don’t miss the importance of certain events. So he will stop the narrative to say (in essence), This happened to fulfill prophecy. Which one? Here, let me quote it for you. Several of these Old Testament quotations had meanings when they were first given, but those meanings and applications were just shadows—they were ultimately pointing forward to Jesus.
Matthew’s first prophecy fulfilled moment deals with the virgin birth of Jesus. Lest his Jewish readers doubt the story, Matthew pulls up a quote from Isaiah 7:14 which foretold this. While it seems to initially have been foretelling the birth of Isaiah’s own son, Mahershalalhashbaz, it was ultimately pointing to Jesus.4 Some people call this “dual-fulfillment” prophecy.
The prophecy spoke of a virgin who would become pregnant and have a son.5 And not just that, but this Son would be called Immanuel, which means God with us. In other words, when Jesus is born, God is now literally with His people.
Joseph Obeys (Matthew 1:24-25)
Then Joseph, being raised from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord instructed him, and took his wife to himself, and did not know her [sexually] until she had brought forth her firstborn son. And he called His name Jesus.
Matthew greatly condenses the story at this point, which we will see as we skip back over to Luke’s narrative.
Joseph was awakened from his sleep (by God?), and did what he was instructed to do: take Mary as his wife. But the timeline of when he did this isn’t as clear. Was it that day? Quite possibly. But Mary was still called Joseph’s “betrothed wife” after their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, close to the birth of Jesus. What we can say for certain is that any thought of ending the betrothal disappeared.
Joseph, probably out of honor to God, did not consummate his marriage to Mary until after Jesus was born. Had they done so, it could not be said that “a virgin…shall bring forth a son…” But after Jesus’ birth, that was no longer an issue. Joseph did not “know” his wife until after Jesus was born—which means he did afterwards. Mary was not a perpetual virgin.6
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Because in order to find out about the birth of Jesus, we need to go to Luke chapter 2.
The Taxing Trip to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-5)
And it happened in those days, that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed [or counted]. (This taxing [census] was first made when Quirinius was governor of Syria). And all went to be taxed [registered], every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, into the City of David, which is called Bethlehem, (because he was of the house and lineage of David) in order to be taxed [counted] with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was great with child.
Rome says, “Time to Count You so We Can Tax You”
Caesar Augustus (also known as Octavian) was the second Caesar of Rome, the first being his uncle Julius. He ordered that a census be taken of “all the world.” This phrase, or “the whole world” frequently refers to the Roman Empire in both biblical and non-biblical writings of that era. The purpose of the census was to levy a tax on the inhabitants. A Jewish writer of that era said Rome was exacting “tribute” from Jerusalem.
Luke makes it clear this was the first census/taxing done when Quirinius was governor of Syria. This probably means nothing to you, but this has caused no end of criticizing of Luke’s account, because secular historians haven’t found evidence of a census done during the time Jesus was about to be born. But given that Justin Martyr (a Jewish Christian from the second century), when writing to a non-Christian, told him he could find the evidence in the Roman archives, it seems pretty clear there was documented proof this really happened just when Luke said it did.7
In order for this census to take place, everyone was to go to “his own city.” Apparently, they were supposed to go to their ancestral land. Being a direct descendant of David, Joseph’s inheritance would have been in Bethlehem, though it seems as though the land was no longer in his family’s possession.8
Because of this census/taxation, Joseph left Nazareth (where he was living) and took Mary with him up to Bethlehem, the city of David. This wasn’t exactly the easiest journey on a good day. It would have taken multiple days, and probably longer than normal, since Mary was getting close to giving birth.
In verse 5, Luke, the detailed historian, drops an interesting fact in our laps—Mary was still betrothed to Joseph at this time. They weren’t officially or completely married yet. What exactly all that entails is a matter of speculation and debate. It seems clear Joseph had taken her as his wife (taken her into his house?) based on Matthew 1:24. She traveled to Bethlehem with him, which was not permitted in ancient Jewish culture unless they were married. Yet Luke still calls them “betrothed.” Some possibilities have been suggested:
- They were married, but hadn’t consummated the union. This seems to be the majority viewpoint in commentaries, but it seems odd for the detail-oriented Luke to use the word “betrothed” when other, more specific words could have been used which wouldn’t lead to ambiguity or confusion.
- Joseph and Mary remained betrothed until after the birth of Jesus, both bearing some level of social shame from the pregnancy, so that when Jesus was born, He would only be the Son of God, and not son of Joseph.9 While interesting, and it could be right, this is ultimately conjecture.
- Joseph and Mary were officially married sometime before the birth of Jesus, because Joseph appears to have the right to “know” Mary, but did not take advantage of that right until after Jesus’ birth. This right wouldn’t have been available to him during a betrothal.10 But this could be reading too much into Matthew 1:25.
- If the conception of Jesus was near the beginning of their betrothal, and betrothals lasted a year (as some claim), their betrothal period wouldn’t be over for another couple months.11 But it would certainly make things awkward to have a wedding ceremony with a new baby present (maybe that’s why they stayed in Bethlehem instead of going back to Nazareth right away?).
I wish I had a good answer to explain when they became officially married (before or after the birth of Jesus), and what it was that changed it from betrothed to official. If it is the consummation of the marriage, then that alone proves the Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary to be false—unless they want to say Mary and Joseph were never officially married (which they would reject).
(We will continue this study next week)
1 The Greek word angellos has been Anglicized, or transliterated, instead of being translated in almost every Bible. The Greek word means “messenger,” and the context must determine whether a human or heavenly messenger is under consideration. This is dealt with more extensively in my book War in Heaven War on Earth: What Revelation Meant to the Original Readers and What It Means for Us Today.
2 Luke 1:31.
3 Matthew 1:22-23.
4 Though some are very adamant that Isaiah 7:14 can only be speaking of Jesus, the context of Isaiah 7 and 8 (the only two times in the Old Testament the word “Immanuel” is used) requires an initial application to the time soon after the prophecy was given. The things said of “Immanuel” in Isaiah 7 match the things said of Mahershalalhashbaz in Isaiah 8—these being signs of the overthrow of the kings of Syria and Israel, who were both tormenting the kingdom of Judah.
5 Isaiah 7:14 literally says The virgin or This virgin (scholars say it could be either), and appears to be speaking to or about a virgin in the king’s palace (tradition says Isaiah married a daughter of the king of Judah). So when he says, “This virgin shall conceive and bear a son,” it wouldn’t mean she would be a virgin after conceiving, but that she was a virgin when Isaiah said it. But when Matthew uses it and applies it to Jesus, he says it had a larger meaning and greater fulfillment by a virgin being pregnant and having a child—while still a virgin.
6 We will deal with this issue more in detail when Jesus’ brothers and sisters show up in the narrative.
7 This is a very shortened response to what is an interesting historical topic. For more details on it, see the commentaries on this passage by Adam Clarke, Matthew Henry, Henry Alford, and others.
8 The Old Testament required that all family land was kept in the family, unless it had to be sold to pay for debts—and then it was to be returned to the family in the 49th year—the year of Jubilee. That Joseph didn’t have anywhere to stay indicates the land had been sold, and possibly that the year of Jubilee had been (again) ignored by the Jews.
9 This was suggested to me via text message from a friend who hadn’t previously considered the issue.
10 This was suggested to me via text message from a friend and long-time evangelist for the Lord.
11 I have not found anyone arguing this, but I present it as another possibility.