In this 26-minute message, we examine Matthew 1:18-25 – the angel’s message to Joseph about Mary’s child. Joseph has just been trying to decide what to do about Mary his fiancé, who had returned home from a trip pregnant! God lets Joseph wrestle with his thoughts before he gives him the information he needs to make a wise decision.
If you prefer, you can read the text below.
When God speaks, when he says that something is going to happen, it will happen, though all the powers of hell wage war to prevent it. This is true both on a cosmic level and on a personal level – on every level. Nothing can withstand the word of God. Though ten thousand things arise to stop it, and ten thousand years have passed since it was spoken, it will come true. God’s word remains forever (1 Peter 1:25). The so-called laws of nature bend over backwards to submit to God’s word. Electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces, and gravity – the four forces of nature – dance attendance on him and race to obey his word.
God spoke his word at the dawn of the age when he promised to crush the serpent’s head. In Abraham’s day, he spoke a blessing on all the peoples of the earth. To David he pledged an heir who would rule the world. God told Israel that the virgin would conceive and bear a son, and of the increase of his government and peace there would be no end. None of these promises failed. God’s words do not fall to the ground. “So will My word be which goes out of My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the purpose for which I sent it.”
The story of the world is the story of God speaking, of evil resisting, and of God having his way. In the time of Isaiah, some 700 years before Christ, God spoke the promise of a child who would be Immanuel – the with-us-God. 700 years. Think how things change. 700 years, there were no United States; the Americas were unknown to Europe, Africa, and Asia. 700 years ago, educated people spoke Latin. 700 years ago, if you survived childhood – and most families lost one or more children in childbirth or in their first few years – old age would strike in your forties and, if you lived an average lifespan, you would die in your early fifties.
Lots of things change over a span of 700 years. God’s word does not. If he said it, you can count on it. He said that a child – Immanuel, the with-us God – would be born. The collapse of Israel as a nation, the destruction of Jerusalem, the confinement and execution of the royal heirs, the exile of its people to a foreign land, the centuries-long silence of God’s prophets, and the almost complete loss of Israel’s native tongue could not prevent God’s word from coming true.
I just listed some huge obstacles to the fulfillment of God’s promise – national and global obstacles, like war and the collapse of governments. But there were also obstacles closer to home, local and personal – so personal as to be a person. One such obstacle was a man, a good man, named Joseph. Our text today is Matthew 1:18-25. Let’s read about it. We’ll start with verses 18 and 19.
“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.”
In this case, the obstacle to the fulfillment of God’s promise was a person who is described as a righteous man. We presume that the obstacle to God’s plan is always an evil person who stubbornly resists God at every turn. But Joseph is a righteous man who is doing his best to obey God and honor him. I wonder how often righteous people unwittingly hinder God’s plan. I suppose it happens more often that most of us might imagine.
Let’s get a little background. Verse 18 informs us that Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph. The Greek is something like, “His mother Mary was betrothed (or engaged) to Joseph.” We will misunderstand what is in mind here if we think of their betrothal as if it were a 21st century engagement.
Betrothal was much more binding in first century Israel than engagement is in 21st century America. In a first century Jewish setting, the groom would declare his intention to marry before at least two legally qualified witnesses, and both members of the couple were required to state their consent. The groom would then pay the father of the bride (or, if he were deceased, to the oldest male relative) a down payment on the bride price.
The period of engagement was usually one year. If, during that time, the bride was unfaithful to her fiancé, the law of Moses dictated that both she and her lover be put to death for adultery. If for any reason the couple (or their parents) decided that they wouldn’t go through with the marriage, they could not just call off the engagement; they needed to get a divorce—once again before witnesses. Betrothals were so binding that, if the man died during the betrothal period, the woman became a widow.
It was during this year-long engagement period that Mary, verse 18 “was found to be with child.” She had been away from home – staying with her much older cousin Elizabeth, who may have been a mother-figure to Mary – and when she returned three months later, she was pregnant. “She was found to be with child.” What was Joseph to think?
We are not informed by any of the Gospels that Mary told Joseph about the pregnancy before she was “found to be with child.” She did not go to him with the angel’s message or even try to relate the experience of the Holy Spirit coming on her and the power of the Most High overshadowing her. If she had told him, he would not have believed her.
Today, we think that people living in the past would believe anything. Everyone before our time was gullible. But this is simply false. People in the first century did not believe in virgin births any more than people today. Put yourself in Joseph’s place. Your fiancé has been away for three months and, when she comes back, she is pregnant. If she came to you with a story about an angel and an immaculate conception, would you have believed her? No? And neither would Jospeh.
The NIV ’84 translates verse 19 this way: “Because Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace…” It sounds like it was because Joseph was righteous that he did not want to expose her to disgrace. That is simply a misreading of the text, which the NIV 2011 corrects. It was because Joseph was a righteous man that he felt a responsibility to expose Mary to public disgrace.
You see, Joseph was torn. As a righteous man, it was his duty to make an example of Mary. But Joseph does not want to do that, to destroy her reputation and ruin her life. His mind demanded: “Tell people what she’s done. That is Deuteronomy 22. Besides, if you don’t, people will think you are the father.” But his heart said, “She is just a girl and disgracing her will ruin her life forever.” So, the good man was torn between what he thought was his duty and what he thought was her good.
Righteous people are sometimes torn. Joseph was. Being a righteous person does not mean you have all the answers. Life is complicated. Decisions still need to be made. Joseph made one. He would get a divorce. Remember that betrothals (or engagements) could only be ended by divorce or by death.
I say Joseph made a decision, but in the very next verse we see that he was still pondering it. You’ve had that experience, right? You’ve reached a decision – or at least you thought you did – but you find you can’t stop going over it in your mind. That’s apparently what Joseph was doing. A very literal translation of verse 20 goes, “Reflecting on these things, an angel of the Lord appeared to him according to a dream.”
It seems Joseph had gone to bed but his mind hadn’t turned off. All the things that had happened – his betrothal, Mary’s absence for three months, the pregnancy – and all the things that might happen – Mary’s reputation ruined, his reputation ruined, the humiliation of it all – were running around in his mind. It was in that state that he drifted off to sleep.
There were other angel appearances around the time of Jesus’s birth, but they came to people who were awake. Joseph’s two angel encounters came while he was asleep. Sleep is no barrier to God and, I suspect that in Joseph’s case, sleep removed a barrier and enabled him to receive the message more clearly than he could have received it had he been awake.
The angel tells Joseph: “Do not to be afraid to take Mary for your wife.” Notice that the angel offered no assurances that everything would be fine. He didn’t tell him that that things would work out or that there would be no humiliation. He did let Joseph know that Mary had not been unfaithful; the child in her was conceived from the Holy Spirit and is holy.
The angel went further. He told Joseph that he would give the child the name Jesus. In that culture at that time, naming a child was a father’s prerogative. In this case, the heavenly Father’s prerogative. He tells the earthly stepdad what the child’s name will be.
Names in Bible times (and through much of earth’s history) have had greater significance than most names do in our society. When my parents named me “Shayne,” they had no idea what the name meant. (It is related through several iterations to the Hebrew name Yochanan and means “Yahweh (that is God’s name) is gracious.” They didn’t know that; they just liked how it sounded.
Biblical names were not chosen primarily because of how they sounded but because of what they meant. Abraham, for example, means “Father of many.” Noah means “rest.” Peter means “rock.” Hosea named his son Jezreel, which means, “God sows.” Isaac means, “he will laugh.” These names were intended to convey truth about the person or about God.
So, with the name Jesus. Jesus, which is how we pronounce the Aramaic version of the Hebrew name “Joshua” means, “Yahweh saves.” When Joseph woke, he did what the angel commanded him. The Greek says, “Rising from sleep, Joseph did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took his wife…” One of the great things about Joseph – and there are many, for Joseph was a great man – is that when he knew what to do, he did it. That was the kind of person God chose to be the earthly dad to his only begotten Son. It is still the kind of person God chooses for all his important assignments. (Are you and I those kinds of people?)
Matthew summarizes this whole section in verse 22: “All this” – the births and lives of the people listed in the genealogy, dating back two thousand years, as well as Joseph and Mary’s engagement, her pregnancy, and the angel’s appearance – “All this happened so that the word of the Lord spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled.”
Let me remind you of what was said earlier: “When God speaks, when he says that something is going to happen, it will happen, though all the powers of hell wage war to prevent it. … Though ten thousand things arise to stop it, and ten thousand years have passed since it was spoken, it will come true for God’s word remains forever (1 Peter 1:25).” This God is our God.
And because he is abundant in his mercy and overflowing with love, he is not only our God in heaven; he is our God with us. Look at verse 23, which reminds us of the word of God that was spoken hundreds of years earlier and was now coming to pass: “‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, ‘God with us’”.
In Psalm 115, God is spoken of as “our God is heaven,” and from there he rules over us. In Deuteronomy 4, he is “our God near us,” unlike the gods that other people worship, who are far away. In Christ he has become, as Romans 8 puts, “our God for us”—and if God is for us, who can be against us? But best of all, he is “God with us”: with us wherever we go, as he told Joshua; with us in trouble, as he told the psalmist; with us in the fight, as he told Zechariah; with us until the end of the age, as Jesus promised; and then beyond that, for he will be with us and be our God when this age has passed away for he “lives in us and will be with us forever” (2 John 2:2). He is Immanuel – God with us.
For us to grasp the glory of all this, it must be set against another biblical story, the story of Adam and Eve. That story is about the choice our first parents made – that humanity made and has been making ever since – to abandon God. They chose not to be with their God. Do you know what usually happens when one person wants to be with another who doesn’t want to be with them? Anger, distance, withdrawal, divorce. But though humanity chose not to be with God, which is to say, though humanity chose death, God chose to be with humanity—he chose life.
The surprising route that God followed so that he could be with us and give us life led through the virgin’s womb. What a journey! What an act of humility on the part of the unwanted God! Nothing can stop him.
Now let’s wrap this up by returning to the good man Joseph. He was caught between the hammer and the anvil. It seemed to him that doing the right thing meant making a public example of his fiancé who had been – as far as he could tell – unfaithful to him. But it went against his nature to disgrace her. After anguished hours of internal debate, he made up his mind what to do. He would quietly divorce her. It was a compromise between exposing her to public condemnation on the one hand and ignoring what she had done – what he thought she had done – on the other.
God let Joseph work through all this before he spoke to him. God does not usually cut short our thinking process in order to facilitate his plans. He could have come to Joseph before all this happened and said, “In a year or so you will learn that your fiancé is pregnant. Don’t panic. It’s all part of my plan.” Instead, God let Joseph think this thing through for himself. It was only after he chose the best course of action he could (which, we know, was not the right one), that God stepped in. God does not usually override or overwhelm our thoughts. Instead, he uses our thoughts to shape us, sometimes to break us, but always so that he can bless us for his purpose and our great good. His purpose is our great good.
I close with this: the final words of this chapter confirm Joseph’s obedience. “And he gave him the name Jesus.” The Baby whose birth we are about to celebrate is God’s salvation. Peter says that God has exalted him as “Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins…” Paul calls him “our great God and Savior” and says that he is “the Savior of all men.” John calls him “the Savior of the world.” Remember the angel’s message to the shepherds: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
The angel told Joseph, “Give him the name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” “And he gave him the name Jesus.” Savior. Do you know him by that name?
 Per Keener.