Matthew tells the story of the birth of Jesus from Joseph’s point of view. He was pledged to be married to Mary – a binding contract, which could only be terminated by death or divorce, but not yet full marriage; the couple lived apart until the marriage ceremony when the wife went to live with her husband. When Joseph heard Mary was pregnant he knew he was not the father of the child, and so decided to divorce her privately – the Mosaic law specified that the penalty for unfaithfulness was stoning to death, but at that time divorce was the usual course, either making a public spectacle of the guilty party in a court of law or doing it quietly before two witnesses.
Before he could put his plan into effect, Joseph had a dream in which an angel appeared to him. The message of the angel must have been extremely shocking; after addressing him as ‘son of David’, reminding him of his royal lineage and of the promise in Scripture that a son of David would be the Prince of Peace, he was then told not to be afraid of going ahead with his marriage to Mary. Fear would have been natural – in a small community where tongues were already wagging, his good name mattered; and his taking Mary to be his wife would most naturally have led to the assumption that he had been carrying on with her before his marriage – in those days a scandalous thing to do. But the angel had not finished. The baby had been conceived by the Holy Spirit! That would have shocked Joseph to the core. He knew the Greek and Roman stories of gods coming to earth and conceiving children with human mothers, the offspring being half human, half divine. But Joseph would have rejected and abhorred such stories. He rightly would have understood the angel to be saying only that the baby was conceived by a miraculous act of God, not in the carnal way that the Romans and Greeks spoke of; nevertheless it would still have been a shock.
The angel went on to tell him who the baby would be: a boy, whom he was to name ‘Jesus’ and thereby accept the baby as if he was his own. (Physical descent was not as important in those days as it is now; all that mattered was whether or not the child was counted as a true son.) The name carried significance. It was a common boy’s name in those days – it is the same name as ‘Joshua’, ‘Jesus’ being the Greek way of spelling it. It meant, ‘Yahweh is salvation’, or, ‘O save, Yahweh’. (‘Yahweh’ is the name of God, usually written as LORD in our Bibles.) And the reason for the name: Jesus would save his people from their sins. The angel did not elaborate.
Matthew then points to Scripture, as he often does in his gospel. He sees events in Jesus’ life as filling out verses from the Scriptures. In this case he reminds us about a prophecy in Isaiah, given to one of the kings when faced with attack by neighbouring rulers. The word ‘virgin’ translates a Greek word, which itself is a translation of a Hebrew word simply meaning ‘a young woman of marriageable age’. When Jesus was born no-one thought that the Messiah would be born of a virgin; when it happened it gave fuller meaning to the prophecy than was originally intended. But Matthew is more concerned with the second half of the prophecy: his name shall be ‘Immanuel’, meaning ‘God is with us.’ That could simply mean that we are in God’s favour. However, Christians through the ages have seen that in Jesus, God had become incarnate; God had become fully human, without ceasing to be fully divine. This was the most amazing miracle of all! It is impossible for us to understand. But we believe it, just as Joseph believed the angel and acted on his words.
1) What can we learn from Joseph?
2) Why is it so good to know the significance of the names ‘Jesus’ and ‘Immanuel’?