19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
With Mary pregnant, Joseph faced a dilemma. What does he do?
They lived in a small town. Inevitably Mary was going to start to show.
I live in a small town. Word gets around.
And so a pregnant Mary would make it appear as though either Mary had been unfaithful to Joseph, or that Mary and Joseph together had violated the betrothal custom and conceived a child together. Which wasn’t true.
Now in our day, we live in a society with very relaxed sexual mores, to our detriment. But that was not the sensibility of first century Galilee. Jewish teaching at the time essentially forbade marrying someone to whom you were betrothed who had been unfaithful.
So take all of verse 19 together.
19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
I think that’s honorable.
Joseph did not want to cause a huge public embarrassment for Mary. He didn’t want to make a spectacle. He didn’t want to humiliate Mary.
A just man
But he was a just man. What does that mean?
In this context, it meant that he could not ignore her apparent sexual sin. Because he was a faithful Jew who adhered to the law and teachings of the Old Testament.
So Joseph initially does not see it as an option to marry Mary. But he doesn’t want to shame her either, so he just wants to try to make the breaking of the betrothal as painless as possible for both of them.
Quick side note.
Sometimes people will note that Mary’s apparent adultery would have been a capital offense and she faced stoning.
That is partially correct. It’s true that death was the penalty for adultery in the Old Testament, but by the first century and under Roman Rule, it seems that this would have been uncommon in practice. Even when the Jewish leaders sought to crucify Jesus, they had to take their request before the local Roman government.
They couldn’t just do it on their own.
Back to Joseph. There appears to be a sensible course of action until Joseph is greeted with the most unexpected news.
An angelic messenger appears to Joseph in a dream.
Verse 20: But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes the Lord can quickly change our plans. As Matthew’s gospel heralds the news of the Christ coming into the world, he records several angelic encounters, specifically in dreams.
Angelic encounters in the Bible are often these glorious, terrifying, awe-inspiring events. But in Matthew, the angelic visitations are always merely to communicate a divine message and that is all that Matthew focuses on.
The angel identifies Joseph as the Son of David. That will be the only place in this gospel that anyone other than Jesus is called the Son of David.
It also reminds us of the significance of Joseph’s lineage in the incarnation. Because it is Joseph who is the descendant of David.
Luke 1:27 says that Joseph was of the House of David. It is through Joseph that Jesus is connected to David. And Joseph is told not to fear taking Mary as his wife.
The reason he needs to be told not to fear is that the religious and social expectation would be that Joseph would not take Mary as his wife.
For the town gossips in Nazareth, the explanation that Mary is pregnant with a child that has been conceived via divine conception is not exactly the easiest story to believe. So to marry Mary is to also have to deal with the social ostracism of marrying an apparent adulteress.
But Joseph is told not to fear.
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