“Reactions to Christ’s Birth” series: (post #2)
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. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21, N.K.J.V.)
Joseph went to bed that night with a lot on his mind. His betrothed bride, the young virgin to whom he was scheduled to formally marry and spend the rest of his life with as her husband, was pregnant. He didn’t know who the baby’s father was, but he knew for sure that it wasn’t him.
The Bible doesn’t tell us how Joseph found out about Mary’s pregnancy. In our day, the obvious answer would be, “Mary told him.” According to ancient Jewish wedding tradition, however, the betrothed bridegroom and the betrothed bride remained separated from each other for a period as long as a year while the bridegroom prepared a place for the couple to live after the official wedding ceremony took place. This makes it most likely that Joseph found out about Mary’s pregnancy by way of local gossip.
To make Joseph’s predicament even worse, the holy law that God had centuries earlier handed down to the people of Israel provided specific instructions for how betrothed virgins who were found to have had premarital sex were to be judged. First, if the sexual misconduct occurred in a city, both sexual partners were to be stoned to death, the assumption being that if the girl had been raped, she would have cried out for help and someone would have come to her rescue (Deuteronomy 22:23-24). Second, if the misconduct occurred in the countryside, only the man was to be killed by stoning, the assumption being that the woman was raped and her cries went unheard (Deuteronomy 22:25-27). In both cases, the two-fold point of the stoning was to “put away the evil” from the land and to allow the stoning to serve as a public warning to any potential evil-doers.
Since Joseph and Mary both lived in the city of Nazareth, the only logical conclusion Joseph could draw was that Mary’s sexual misconduct had occurred with the confines of that city. This meant that by law she was to be stoned to death as a public example. The fact was, though, that Joseph really didn’t want to push the matter that far. As Matthew 1:19 says:
Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. (N.K.J.V.)
The term “put her away” is old terminology for “divorce,” and you’ll notice that the verse refers to Joseph as “her husband.” You see, a betrothal was binding enough to cause the couple to be legally classified as “married” even before the wedding and the sexual consummation of the marriage came to pass. As such, nothing less than a legal divorce could get the man or the woman out of the betrothal. This also explains why any sexual misconduct that violated the sanctity of the betrothal period was a capital punishment offense.
Again, though, Joseph didn’t want to make Mary a public example by having her stoned. For that matter, perhaps he was also afraid that people would wrongly assume that he was the child’s father and would figure that he deserved stoning as well. So, he made the decision to divorce Mary in a way that was legal but private. This was the only possible course of action to avoid an open scandal, and there weren’t even any guarantees that it would avoid one.
It is with all of these things weighing upon him that Joseph lies down to sleep. He nods off and at some point, an angel appears to him in a dream. The angel instructs him to proceed with the betrothal/marriage because the child conceived in Mary is of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, the child is a son whom Joseph should name “Jesus.” The name “Jesus” means “Savior.” It is the equivalent of the Hebrew name “Joshua,” which means “The Lord is Salvation.”
Okay, Joseph, now it’s time for your reaction to the news about Christ’s birth. What will you do? Will you believe the unbelievable and do as you have been instructed? Or will you defer to your own logic and follow through with your plan to divorce Mary? Tick tock, tick tock, the clock is ticking on your decision.
The Bible’s record of how Joseph reacted is found in Matthew 1:24-25:
Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS. (N.K.J.V.)
Some interpret the words “took to him his wife” to mean that Joseph went ahead and moved Mary into his home. If nothing else, they mean that he continued on with the betrothal even though the marriage wasn’t sexually consummated until after Jesus was born. We do know from Luke 2:5 that the couple were still considered “betrothed” when they traveled together to Bethlehem while Mary was still pregnant.
Whatever the exact details were, there’s absolutely no doubt as to how Joseph reacted to the news of the birth of Christ. He reacted in a wholehearted, enthusiastic way that was worthy of the man whom God was granting the staggering responsibility of overseeing Jesus’ birth and upbringing. The fact is that God presented Joseph with a challenge unlike any other challenge presented to any other man, and Joseph rose to meet it. Therefore, Joseph stands as one of history’s greatest believers, and his reaction to the news of Christ’s birth should serve as a positive motivation to us all.