This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"—which means, "God with us."
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son, and he gave him the name Jesus.
Joseph was known as a righteous man
Back in verse 19 it says Joseph was a righteous man. There's a rich history behind this idea. The Hebrew word for a righteous man is tsaddîyq. Joseph was a tsaddîyq, and this means he was known for his uncompromising obedience to the Torah, the law of Moses. I'm indebted for a lot of what I want to talk about to an article by Scott McKnight, a New Testament scholar.
Joseph did not eat unclean food. He didn't mix with the wrong kinds of people. He didn't keep his carpentry shop open on the Sabbath to make a few extra drachmas. He was a tsaddîyq; that was his identity. Everybody knew this about him. Nobody invited Joseph over to have ham sandwiches with tax collectors and prostitutes. He was what people wanted to be. Like a businessman in our day wants to be a CEO, or like an athlete wants to be an all-star, an Israelite wanted to be a tsaddîyq. Becoming one meant you were admired and looked up to. Then you were somebody. And that was Joseph.
But now he's a tsaddîyq with a problem. The girl he has promised to marry is going to have a baby, and whoever the father is, Joseph knows it's not him. Nazareth is a small town, and as a general rule, word gets around in a small town. So we have a tsaddîyq and a pregnant fiancée in a small village where as a general rule everybody knows everybody's business.
Because we live on the other side of Christmas, we want to rush to the end of the story where everything turns out okay. You might even be tempted to think Joseph was slow spiritually and should have figured out what was going on a lot sooner. But if you do that, you miss the whole point of what Joseph is learning, and of what we can learn from him—that there's some amazing stuff going on around Christmas besides how Jesus got here. You miss out on how God is already beginning to redefine what it means to be a tsaddîyq, what true righteousness is.
Joseph agonized over Mary's pregnancy
Put yourself in Joseph's place for a moment. Your fiancée is pregnant, and your whole reputation and identity revolve around one thing—your commitment to the Torah. What the Torah says, you do. That's who you are. The Torah has some clear instructions about what to do to somebody in Mary's condition. A section in Deuteronomy 22 covers marriage violation. If a woman pledged to be married is unfaithful, it says:
she shall be brought to the door of her father's house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father's house. You must purge this evil from among you.
Maybe Joseph thought she'd been seduced by another man. In that case, according to Torah, they were both to be stoned.
Numbers 5 lays out another option. It is a strange passage. If a husband suspected his wife was unfaithful and she denied it, he could take her to a priest. The priest would have her drink what's called the "water of bitterness," and then, Numbers 5:27 says, "if she has defiled herself … her abdomen will swell and her thigh waste away, and she will become accursed among her people."
The Torah was clear. Joseph's reputation as a tsaddîyq was on the line. His fellow tsaddîyqim would have told him this sin must be publicly exposed and punished. But Joseph couldn't bring himself to do this.
To understand this tension we have to do a little grammar work. A grammatical construction in verse 19 involves what's called a participle, sometimes called a verbal adjective, like the crying baby or the growing boy. In verse 19 we run into a circumstantial participle. This kind of participle can be translated in maybe nine different ways, depending on the context or the circumstances. It could be causal or concessive. It could be translated with a number of phrases, like because, although, while, by means of, in order to. How we understand it depends on the context.
Matthew 1:19 literally says, "Joseph, being a righteous man, did not want to make a public example of her." The question is: How do you translate that circumstantial participle, "being righteous"? You can translate it causal: "because he was righteous." The idea here would be: because he's righteous he doesn't want to cause a ruckus.
But New Testament scholar Don Hagner says most likely the best translation is this: "although he was righteous." Although he was a tsaddîyq—a righteous man—he didn't want to cause a scandal. In the old system, righteousness would have demanded she be exposed. Sinners need to be excluded. Standards have to be maintained. In the old system, righteousness always separates itself from sin and sinners. A righteous man would not hesitate … and yet Joseph hesitated. He couldn't bring himself to say the words to go public, even though he was a tsaddîyq, a righteous man.
It doesn't take much imagination to know how Joseph must have agonized over this day after day. When the angel comes to Joseph, Joseph of course already knows Mary is pregnant. How did he find out? Mary would have told him. Put yourself in his place. You are engaged to a 13-year-old girl, and your fiancée comes to you and says, "I have some bad news and some good news. The bad news is I'm pregnant even though we're not married yet. The good news is I haven't been with anybody else. An angel came to me and said, 'Hail Mary, full of grace.' I'm going to have a miracle baby, and all generations will call me blessed. I know it's never happened before, but it's going to happen."
Imagine how she must have protested to him about her innocence. Imagine Joseph's struggle. Most likely his father had arranged the marriage. He probably did not know her terribly well at this point. She seemed to be sincere. But an angel? A virgin birth? No way. So he decides to divorce her quietly, the text says. A betrothal was a legal act in that day, so to end it required an act of divorce. That way he could minimize her suffering but maintain his status as a tsaddîyq, a righteous man.
Then in verse 20 God sends a message to Joseph: "After he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream." Why did God make Joseph wait till after he had to think and struggle with all this stuff? Why couldn't an angel come to him ahead of time and explain everything and remove that anxiety?
Is it possible that anxiety removal is not God's number one goal for Joseph—or maybe for you and me? Is it possible that in getting his world turned upside down, in having to struggle between what he thought a tsaddîyq;mdash;a righteous man—ought to do, and his longing to show compassion to this young girl, maybe Joseph was being prepared by God to come to a new understanding of what righteousness is? Is it possible there's a ministry of disequilibrium God is allowing to take place in Joseph's life so he'll come to a new era of growth? Is it possible in your life, maybe right now? If you're confused or disoriented or uncertain about something, maybe it's not because you've done something wrong. Maybe you're about to grow. Maybe what you need to do is wait on God and trust God's going to do something in your life you don't even know about yet!
Joseph sacrificed his reputation
That's what happens here. The angel says, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife." Why would Joseph be afraid to wed Mary? Of course Joseph would be afraid of offending God and violating the Torah, but it's not just that. Joseph would be afraid of losing his reputation. He would be afraid of what everybody would think about him. Joseph knew about his own doubts when Mary told him about the angel. There's no way people in his town were going to believe an angel came to a poor couple in an obscure village and caused the conception of a child in the body of a virgin teenage girl. He knew that if he married her, his friends would never accept his account of what happened. He would not be invited to their homes, he would not be given their business, and he would never again be admired and respected as a lover of the Torah. If he committed himself to this baby—to the one who would be known as Jesus—he would do so at enormous sacrifice. His whole reputation, the work of a lifetime, would be trashed.
The angel says, "Do not be afraid," and Joseph did what the angel had commanded him. He did two things. In verse 24, he took Mary home as his wife. That's a legal step. It meant he was publicly claiming her as his wife. And then verse 25 says he named the baby. This too is a legal action. In the act of naming the child, Joseph is publicly adopting this child as his son. Joseph has now deliberately tied his destiny to the lives of two stained reputations. Joseph has made a decision that will awe anybody who comprehends it. Now his days as a tsaddîyq—as a righteous man—are over, and whatever the future has for him, it will not be polite respectability.
I want to show you how fully Joseph bet the farm and risked everything on what God was doing. Mark 6 says Jesus had four brothers. They were named James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. It's hard to tell from the English translation, but each name is the Greek version of the Hebrew for Israel's great patriarchs—Jacob, Joseph, Judah, and Simeon. Scholars say Joseph and Mary may have given their sons these names because they trusted that through their son Jesus, God was going to act one more time to renew his people. That's what God was up to in the birth of this little baby.
It may also be that we see part of the price Joseph paid in Mark 6:3, when the people say about Jesus, "Isn't this the son of Mary?" Probably Joseph is dead by now, but even if the father died, a man in Israel was always referred to as the son of his father— Jesus bar Joseph. To refer to the man as the son only of the mother often was a harsh expression, something like a crude English phrase where somebody calls somebody else the son of a—and then an insulting word for the mother. Mark 6:3 may well reflect that decades later, not just years but decades later, Joseph's reputation still has not recovered from his marriage.
Since that time, millions of people have made sacrifices for the sake of this one called Jesus. Many have given up status, possessions, convenience, freedoms, even their lives. But Joseph, who gave up his identity and reputation for Jesus, had not even seen him yet. When Joseph looked into people's eyes after he obeyed God, things were never the same. They never looked at him with the same respect and adoration. But when he looked into the eyes of that child, Jesus, he knew he had done the right thing.
Joseph exemplified the righteousness of Jesus
Maybe God decided that Jesus, who would be called a friend of sinners, should be raised in a family that knew firsthand what it feels like to be regarded in the spiritually second-class category. Maybe part of why Jesus had a heart for unrespectable people is that he was raised by a father who sacrificed his respectability for his son. Maybe one reason Jesus had compassion on women who were walking scandals is that he knew what it meant to his mom that his father had stuck by her when she was single and pregnant, and when all the righteous folks would have said "take a walk." I think of how Jesus, as he was growing up, must have admired his dad's courage.
Later, when Joseph was long dead and Jesus was a grown man, he taught in Matthew 5:20, "Unless your righteousness passes that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law"—the old system—"you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." Jesus must have been thinking inside, I've seen the better kind of righteousness firsthand; my father was such a man.
Maybe God had a reason for this odd, painful, lonely way to start a family. Maybe God still calls people to be willing to die to reputation and status and comfort for the sake of love. That's why we seek to extend this kingdom launched by that little child.
When Joseph made the decision to wed Mary, he thought it was the end of his being known as a righteous man. He did not know fully that the child he would adopt would bring to the human race a new kind of righteousness. That's what we celebrate this Christmas.
For Your Reflection
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Exegesis and exposition:
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John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.