Joseph’s Dilemma

Posted: June 12, 2011 in Matthew

Matthew 1:18-25, “Joseph’s Dilemma”

When it comes to Jesus’ earthly parents, Mary receives far more attention than Joseph.  Of course, this is to be expected since Mary was Jesus’ biological parent, whereas Joseph was not.  Yet the way in which God used Joseph is nothing short of amazing & should not be overlooked.  God entrusted Joseph with the responsibility of caring for His Son, protecting Jesus from early persecution, and raising Him up in the ways of Hebrew culture.  Think of it: the father of the home was the primary person to teach his children the Scriptures – and God entrusted that weighty responsibility to Joseph regarding Jesus.  Joseph was Jesus’ adoptive father & in that role he actually illustrated the grace of God & work of Christ.  The One who would make it possible for us to be adopted by God the Father was actually adopted Himself – by one of His own creation.  Wonderful!

Even in Joseph’s earliest role in Jesus’ life, we see the grace of God all in the way he deals with the responsibility given to him to take Mary as his wife.  Joseph had apparently always been a merciful man, but through the working of the word of God in his life, Joseph moved from mercy to grace as he took on his role as the adoptive father of Christ.

By way of review, although the exact date of the writing of the gospel according to Matthew is highly debated, most conservative scholars seem to settle on a date somewhere in the late 50’s to early 60’s.  (Those who dispute this point to the statements of Jesus regarding the destruction of the temple – but of course prophecy is zero problem for Christ.)  The book was written by the apostle Matthew/Levi (the tax collector) & has a distinct Hebrew “flavor” to it.  Matthew shows that Jesus is the long-promised Jewish Messiah who fulfills the Biblical prophecies & provides salvation to all who come to Him in faith.

The Jewishness of the book is seen in the opening verses as Matthew jumps in the genealogy of Christ.  From the very 1st words, Matthew demonstrates that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Davidic & Abrahamic covenant promises & is the legal heir to the throne of David (i.e. Jesus has the legal right to be king of Israel, via His genealogy).  In addition to the Jews, the genealogy shows that Jesus also brings redemption to the entire world: Jews, Gentiles, and outcasts alike (which is demonstrated through the 4 women listed).

If the genealogy shows Jesus to be the Son of David, the account regarding Joseph underlines the fact that Jesus is still truly the Son of God.  Joseph was the legal father, but not the biological one – yet for Joseph to bridge this gap in a way that honors the Law is a problem that only the grace of God can solve. 

Vs 18-19: the problem… Vs 20-23: the pronouncement… Vs 24-25: the product (application)

Matthew 1:18–25 (NKJV)
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit.

  1. Why address Jesus’ birth?  Only 2 of the 4 gospel accounts say anything about it.  Each of the 2 address different aspects of Jesus’ genealogy (with Matthew looking at the line through Joseph & Luke looking at the line through Mary)…  There’s a natural tie-in here – not only is Jesus’ family tree important to see how He is the fulfillment of God’s promise, but the manner of His birth is important to understand that this is really the supernatural work of God.  Jesus is not merely another son of David, He is the promised Son of David – the Son of God – the very incarnation of God in the flesh.  All of this is shown dramatically in His birth.
  2. Mary was betrothed to Joseph”: This was not “engaged” – it was far more than that.  In betrothal, the relationship was formal & included everything about marriage with the exception of living together & consummation.  The relationship was solidified between the families & the groom took time to prepare a home for his bride.
    1. This is what Jesus is doing for us right now as the Groom to the Bride (the Church).  We are already His declared Bride, even if the wedding feast has not yet taken place (which it won’t until the end of the Tribulation/beginning of the Millennial kingdom).
    2. Because we’re Jesus’ bride NOW, we ought to act like His Bride…
  3. The betrothal was normal & celebrated – but there was a problem: Mary was pregnant prior to the wedding.  Culturally speaking, this was a HUGE problem!  The consequences could literally be decided between life & death. Deuteronomy 22:23–24, "(23) “If a young woman who is a virgin is betrothed to a husband, and a man finds her in the city and lies with her, (24) 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 out in the city, and the man because he humbled his neighbor’s wife; so you shall put away the evil from among you." []  In our familiarity with the story, be careful not to let the drama escape you…this was a serious problem that needed to be addressed.  Before Jesus was ever born, His life was already in danger…
  4. child of the Holy Spirit”: This is a bit unclear in the NKJV – ESV states “child from the Holy Spirit” – NASB, “child by the Holy Spirit” – NET, “pregnant through the Holy Spirit.”  IOW, although the Gospel of Matthew will repeatedly affirm that Jesus is truly God in the flesh, this is simply a statement of the manner of His conception (and not of the nature of the Triune God).  Mary was made pregnant through the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit.  Of course Joseph doesn’t know this (yet) – it just appears to him that Mary had either been victimized or been unfaithful with her vows.  What Scripture affirms is neither: Mary had been totally upright in her actions & untouched by another man – her pregnancy was the supernatural work of God.

19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly.

  1. Joseph was “a just man.”  This isn’t a statement about positional righteousness…i.e., this isn’t saying that Joseph was fully righteous in the sight of God & had earned his salvation outside of Christ. []  Simply a statement regarding how he lived his life according to the intents of God’s law.  As Jesus would later teach, Joseph lived out the heart of God when God said “I desire mercy & not sacrifice,” (Hos 6:6, Mt 9:13).  The point?  This was a good guy!  He didn’t want to needlessly bring trouble upon someone else.  At the same time, he didn’t want to pretend that sin didn’t exist, if indeed it did.
  2. His problem?  What to do with Mary?  Surely she would not have seemed to be a person who would have allowed something like this to happen.  She apparently did not claim that a crime of some sort took place (which would have given her legal protection – Deut 22:25-27).  She wasn’t accusing Joseph or anyone else of being the father.  According to Luke’s account, Mary had already been told that she was carrying the Son of God via a miracle (Lk 1:31)…  Because Mary knew this was of God, she had no reason to lie about it (even if all the external circumstances looked terrible for her).
  3. So what was the best option for Joseph?  How do you deal with a person you believe to be righteous & honest & yet pregnant with a baby that is obviously not your own?  Answer: if you’re Joseph & acting as a just man, you choose mercy.  Joseph had the option of public execution…he didn’t take it.  Instead he chose mercy.  By putting her away, he did not ignore the (supposed) sin, but he still did everything he could to spare her life & provide for her.
    1. When in doubt, choose mercy!  It seems like too often, we rush to justice – yet if we were judged by the same standard, we’d be in a heap of trouble!  If we ourselves desire mercy, we ought to show mercy to one another. … God desires His people to be merciful – when we are, we’ll experience a blessed relationship with Him!  Matthew 5:5–7, "(5) Blessed are the meek, For they shall inherit the earth. (6) Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled. (7) Blessed are the merciful, For they shall obtain mercy." []

20 But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.

  1. The timing of the Lord’s message: “while he thought about these things.”  Joseph had been thinking on the best way (i.e. the God-honoring way) to handle the situation with Mary.  He had been pondering it – and very likely praying about it (though the text never tells us this specifically).
    1. God often speaks to us when we’re already seeking Him & His will.  When we’re ignoring Him, why would we expect any wisdom or guidance to suddenly appear?  We can’t live the Christian life on “autopilot” & expect a vibrant relationship with God when we’re not putting anything into that relationship.
  2. The mode of the Lord’s message: “an angle of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.”  Supernatural experience!  And an interesting one at that…  We’ve seen angels appear to men directly (Daniel, Zechariah re: John the Baptist).  We’ve seen God speak to men through dreams (Jacob, Joseph, Daniel).  Yet it’s not often that we’ve seen God speak to a man through an angel in a dream – yet that’s exactly what God did here.  (Obviously God is God, and He is not limited by anything except Himself.)
    1. What do we do with dreams today?  Peter affirmed that in the fulfillment of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that young & old would see visions & dream dreams (if you experience one or the other, perhaps that’s a statement on your age!) – but from experience, we know that this is not the norm.  It’s completely understandable to be skeptical of random stories – these are subjective experiences that must be evaluated in the light of the revealed word of God.  Yet at the same time, obviously God CAN do these things.  God is God & we’re not.  He has the right to give a dream if He so chooses.
    2. In this case, God had a very specific reason for this kind of supernatural experience: God was preparing Joseph to be the foster father of the Incarnate Son of God!  Thus it makes sense that God would supernaturally reveal His will to Joseph as a confirmation of these events.
      1. Do we look for guidance in dreams & visions?  Obviously not – it’s tough for us to tell what may be a dream given by God & the result of an overcooked potato. J  But can we expect God to give guidance to His people?  Absolutely yes!  We’ve been given the fully revealed Scripture which is breathed out by the Holy Spirit of God – we’ve been indwelt by the Holy Spirit Himself, whom Jesus promised would teach us – we’ve even been made a child of God Almighty through the glorious work of Christ Jesus.  Why would we expect anything LESS than guidance by the Living God?
  3. The message of the message: “Do not be afraid.”  Joseph had a legitimate reason to fear!  If he claimed to be the father, he (1) would be lying, and (2) destroy his own reputation as someone who dishonored the norms of betrothal.  Yet if he denied personal paternity, he would risk much pressure to have Mary publicly executed.  Those are very good reasons to fear!  Yet God (through the angel) told Joseph not to be afraid.  Why?  Because this pregnancy was the work of God.  Because Joseph was smack-dab in the center of God’s will & participating in the work of God, there was zero reason for him to fear.
    1. When it’s the work of God, there’s never a reason to be afraid! … Obviously that doesn’t mean there won’t be hardship or danger (Joseph would surely face much), but we never have to fear in the midst of hardship or danger.  Our God will take care of us!
  4. Notice the angel referred to Joseph as a “son of David.”  Normally we think of this as a title for Jesus, but this was also just as true of Joseph as it was for Solomon, Asa, Hezekiah, and others.  Could Joseph have had a legitimate claim to the throne?  That seems to be the implication here & the very point of including Joseph’s genealogy in the records of Christ. Question: If Joseph had a legal right to be the king, why wasn’t he?
    1. Jeconiah/Jehoiachin’s curse.  As the last true king of Israel (Zedekiah being a steward), Jeconiah had been truly wicked, as his father had before him. As a result, God promised that no son of his body would ever sit on the throne of David. (Jer 22:30)  Thus Joseph had a legal line to the throne, but not the permission of God.  (Which makes God’s choice of him as the adoptive father to be absolutely perfect!)
    2. God’s timing.  Since the Babylonian captivity, Israel had been ruled by foreign leaders.  For the last 400 years, God had silenced the prophets…  Even the current “king” in Jerusalem was simply a puppet of the Roman government – and not even biologically Jewish, at that (Herod was Edomite).  After the moment that the last legitimate king of Israel sat on throne of Jerusalem & was deposed by the Babylonians, the very next legitimate king to sit on the throne was to be Jesus.  Even though Joseph was a just man, not even he had the ability to claim the throne, even if he had the desire & the legitimate right to do so.  It simply wasn’t God’s timing or God’s will for him.
      1. We cannot force the timing of God.  Some of the biggest amounts of trouble people can get into in the name of “ministry” is to try to force something through that God is not doing.  Perhaps it’s not God’s will, or not God’s timing – either way, our forcing of the issue is wrong.  (Forcing our way into the pastorate – attempting to manipulate someone into repentance, etc.)  The action & motive itself may be innocent, but God HAS to be the One to drive & direct it – or it will always come to naught.
  5. BTW – how was Jesus conceived within Mary by the Holy Spirit?  Luke tells us that she was told the power of the Highest would “overshadow” her – basically a statement that God would just “make” it happen.  (He made the universe in 6 days, obviously it’s not a problem for Him to make a virgin pregnant!)  Sometimes people tend to label this the “Immaculate Conception” – yet technically, this is not the same concept.  Theologically speaking, that phrase refers to the incorrect teaching that Mary was fully free from any personal stain of sin when she became pregnant.  Just at Jesus is sinless, supposedly Mary was sinless as well.  There is zero biblical basis for this.  Jesus is sinless because He is 100% God, and God bypassed the fall of Adam by making a virgin pregnant.  Jesus is also 100% man, because He had a human mother who was like every other human mother who had ever lived – though surely she had been blessed above all in her privilege as being the mother of the Lord Jesus.

21 And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.”

  1. Along with the proclamation came a promise: Mary would bear a Son.  Keep in mind that this was before ultrasounds & 4-D images.  Despite old wives’ tales regarding the sex of a baby, people just didn’t know this sort of thing prior to the day of birth.  Yet obviously GOD knew.  Nothing about the birth of Jesus was left to chance or took God by surprise.  He sovereignly orchestrated the entire event.
  2. God not only knew the sex, but He knew the name.  As with John the Baptist, God has already picked out a name for His Son.  (As God, He has the right to choose the name – but that right is doubly emphasized considering this baby was HIS Son!)  Jesus’ name had a purpose, which was explained by the angel: it would speak directly of Jesus’ mission.  He is the Savior…He came to seek & to save the lost (Lk 19:10).  The gospel of salvation is even seen in the NAME of Christ!
  3. “Jesus” = “Yeshua” = “Joshua” (Yahweh Saves)…  This was a fairly common name among the Jews.  What makes it special regarding Christ?  In Jesus, it’s actually fulfilled!  Jesus has come to “save His people from their sins,” and that’s exactly what’s available through Him!
    1. Have you received of His salvation?

22 So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”

  1. There was a prophecy that needed to be fulfilled, and the coming of the incarnate Son of God fulfilled it.  This is going to be a common theme in Matthew (and in all of the gospels) because Jesus truly does fulfill prophecy.  The fact that He does is one of the proofs of His Divinity (His Person).  Over 300 different prophecies were given in the Old Testament regarding the coming Messiah, in order that the people who saw the fulfillment would be able to recognize the Messiah when He came.  Jesus fills them ALL.  Every prophecy regarding the Messiah’s life & ministry is fulfilled in Christ.
    1. Objection: “So what?  It may be tough, but anyone could do that.  If they knew a prophecy said to get on a donkey cold & ride it, all they have to do is arrange for a donkey colt, etc.”  Fair enough – though you’d have to be extremely careful not to miss a single prophecy (which greatly diminishes the probability of being able to do such a thing).  But even granting that – what about all the prophecies over which you would have no control?  We have zero control over the circumstances of our birth, and little to no control over the circumstances of our death (especially when speaking of the actions of other people), and Jesus still fulfills them ALL.  Just to fill eight of these prophecies is an amazingly small probability.  [Josh McDowell – 1×1017]
  2. What was this particular prophecy?  Isaiah 7:14. [Israel was to be delivered from the King of Syria – Ahaz’s unbelief – God’s work to bless Israel despite Ahaz – the sign that God would do it – God is among His people.]  Ahaz only saw a partial fulfillment of this prophecy; we see the ultimate fulfillment in Christ Jesus!  Truly He was born of a virgin & is God with us…
    1. BTW – the fulfillment of Isa 7:14 is itself a fulfillment of another prophecy altogether: Genesis 3:15, "And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel." []  Biologically speaking, women don’t have “seed” – that’s a reference to a male’s reproductive function.  Yet how would a woman have seed?  Only by a supernatural virgin birth!
    2. To answer an objection in translation here: it is “virgin,” or “young woman”?  The original Hebrew could refer to either & many skeptics have debated this.  Yet this was never even a question even among the Jews until after Jesus.  LXX clearly translates this as “virgin.”
  3. Who is Jesus?  “Immanuel.”  Matthew gives us the translation: “God with us.”  If the name of “Jesus” speaks of His purpose, the name of “Immanuel” speaks of His person.  This is a reference to the glorious incarnation – that God Himself would put on flesh and dwell among us.
    1. BTW, note that Jesus does not stop being “Immanuel” now that He is in Heaven.  Jesus is STILL “God with us,” because Jesus is in us.  We often think of us being in Christ (which we are), but in a spiritual way Christ is also in us.  Physically, Jesus is in heaven – yet spiritually His very presence is in us. (Rom 8:10, Col 1:27)  Jesus is God incarnate, but He still possesses the attributes of God – including His omnipresence. Jesus promised to be with us – even till the end of the age. (Mt 28:20)
  4. Keep in mind that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is itself an illustration of grace!  That the Almighty Creator would humble Himself and actually become part & parcel with His creation is absolutely mind-blowing. … This is how much God loves you!  He became a lowly human, simply so that humans like you & me could be saved.

24 Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, 25 and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.

  1. Joseph heard the message, Joseph believed the message, and Joseph demonstrated his belief when he applied the message.  He obeyed the Lord by taking Mary as his wife, caring for her, and even giving the Child the name “Jesus” when He was born.  (Interestingly enough, that’s all we get of the Christmas story here.  The focus on Christmas isn’t so much the manger, but the miraculous Incarnation of God & the promise of God’s salvation.)
    1. Re: obedience. Too many Christians get bogged down here.  We hear the word of God & we’ll agree with the theology & say “Amen!” – but we often balk at obedience. … Understand this: it wouldn’t matter a hill of beans how much Joseph said he agreed with the angel, if he had never taken Mary as his wife.  His faith in God’s word was proven/made evident through his obedience.
  2. Notice the effect of the word of God here: Joseph moved from mercy to grace.  Mercy was good – he didn’t want Mary to be killed (a very good thing!).  But grace is far better & completely unexpected & undeserved.  Grace not only saved Mary from death, it gave her provision for ongoing life.  Mercy saved Mary from tragedy; grace gave Mary life & a future.  Joseph had the right to seek justice – he had the heart to seek mercy – yet in the end, he chose grace.  What made the difference?  The work and the word of God. …
    1. When we see God working – when we remember what He’s done in our lives – when we’re transformed by the living word of God’s inspired Scripture – we cannot help by show grace towards one another! …
    2. Question: what if we can’t show grace?  Perhaps it means we haven’t personally experienced it for ourselves.  If you find it impossible to show grace towards others (which is simply showing other the love that we ourselves have experienced in Christ), it might mean that you’ve never experienced the grace & love of Christ for yourself.  Examine yourself to see if you’re in the faith…
  3. Joseph took Mary as his wife, but did not know her intimately.  Why?  She had a God-given purpose that Joseph was not about to interrupt or interfere with.  God’s plan for her was to bring forth Jesus…
    1. God’s plan for you is to receive Jesus.  Has anything interrupted it?  Respond today!

Conclusion:
At this point, Jesus’ life had just barely begun & already He’s demonstrating the grace of God – all through the actions of His adopted father!  Obviously Matthew makes it clear that God is the biological Father of Christ Jesus, but God had a wonderful role in store for the man to whom He entrusted Jesus as God helped Joseph move from mercy to grace as Joseph stepped out in faith.  Joseph would see the salvation of God in action as Jesus grew up in his house – Joseph would experience more than most people what it would mean to have God dwelling with us.  Joseph had a front row seat to what it meant for God the Son to be both “Jesus” and “Immanuel.”

What about us?  There are two primary applications we can find from Joseph:

    • We ought to be a people of mercy – but through the working of the word of God in our lives, we can also be those who move from mercy to grace.  Those who claim the name of Christ ought to be people who exude the grace of Christ!  Once we’ve experienced it for ourselves, how could we keep it from others?
    • We ought to be a people of faith.  Joseph could have come up with a myriad of reasons not to follow through on the commandment of God: his reputation would be ruined – his own role would to be one of support to a Child – he’d face danger and persecution, etc.  Yet once he recognized & received the word of God, he could not help but act upon it.  So ought we do the same.
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