There are things that seem unbelievable to us until we see evidence they are true. Imagine someone who was transplanted from 200 years ago into the 21st century. If you told them that we had a large metal tube you could fill with hundreds of people that would fly across the country in a couple of hours, they wouldn’t believe you. Once they saw a Boeing 747 take off and fly, however, they might believe it was possible. If you told them you had a tiny box in your pocket that could connect you to anyone in the world and get you an answer to almost any question you could imagine in seconds, they wouldn’t believe you. Once you showed them how your smartphone worked, however, they might believe that something like that really was possible, even if it seemed impossible to their minds.
This is the place we find Joseph in this morning. Joseph had apparently found out that Mary was pregnant, and he was certain that he wasn’t the father. In his mind there was really only one explanation—Mary had been unfaithful to him. Even though she told him the baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit, it was simply too much for him to believe. Then an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him exactly the same thing. Suddenly, as incredible as it seemed, Joseph believed that what Mary said really was true—and it changed his entire outlook and the entire course of his life.
We pick up the story in Matthew 1:18-19 as we get the chance to see Joseph’s dilemma. But in order to help you to see the story from Joseph’s point of view I’m going to leave out a couple of words from the text.
18 This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant…. 19 Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly. (Matthew 1:18-19, NLT, ellipsis added for effect)
Joseph discovered that Mary, the woman to whom he was pledged to be married, was pregnant. And he knew very well that he couldn’t be the father. His only reasonable conclusion was that Mary had been unfaithful to him and that another man was the father of this child. Working from that assumption, he weighed his options and came to the conclusion that he would divorce her quietly.
It’s hard for us to understand the dynamic at play here because modern American marriage rituals are vastly different from those at this time. The process of marriage took place in three stages: arrangement, betrothal, and then marriage. The arrangement stage often took place while the children were still quite young. Both sets of parents would get together and decide their children would one day marry. Later, when they were of marriage age they moved into the second stage, betrothal. Our modern translations call this engagement because it is the step before marriage, but betrothal is actually quite different than our modern conception of engagement.
In our society being engaged doesn’t really have any legal standing and it isn’t binding. At any point during the engagement one party can simply decide they don’t want to get married and end the relationship. Engagement is basically a slightly elevated stage of dating. But betrothal was much different. During the betrothal period (which usually lasted a year), the new couple were seen (and referred to) as husband and wife, only they didn’t live together and didn’t have sexual relations. Mary was called Joseph’s wife even though they still were not officially married. Once you were betrothed it wasn’t possible to simply end the relationship. The only way to end a betrothal was with legal intervention, something very much like a divorce.
Joseph surely felt his options were limited. Either he could continue on to marriage with Mary, pretending as though he and Mary had sinned and that he had gotten her pregnant (which was far more scandalous in that society than it is in ours), or he could divorce her. He had a couple options in the divorce proceedings as well. He could make an example of Mary, publicly shaming her for being unfaithful to him, or he could go with a couple of witnesses and quietly bring an end to the relationship. Though Joseph was surely hurt by what he saw as Mary’s betrayal, he still wanted to respect her so he resolved to quietly end their relationship.
We often think less of Joseph because he didn’t believe Mary’s story that the child she bore was from the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know what we know now. He simply knew his wife was pregnant and that he wasn’t the father. He was hurt, he surely felt bewildered by what had happened, but he didn’t lash out at Mary. He still wanted to respect her while protecting himself. I suspect Joseph really was trying to do the best he could in a difficult situation.
The Change of Heart
We don’t know how much time passed between verse 19 and verse 20. It’s possible that Joseph had this dream the night after he heard from Mary, or maybe several weeks passed. Regardless, Joseph’s mind changed when he heard from the Lord in a dream.
20 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: 23 “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’ ” 24 When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus.
Joseph had a dream in which the angel of the Lord appeared to him and filled him in on the details. He told Joseph to go ahead with the marriage to Mary because her story was true! He told Joseph that the Holy Spirit had caused her to become pregnant, and that he was to name this child Jesus, because he would save his people from their sins.
I have to imagine that at this point Joseph began to realize that there was something special about this child, but the angel continued and explained to Joseph that all of this was happening to fulfill the prophecy made about the Messiah. And he told Joseph the child would be called Immanuel, which means God with us.
Suddenly, I imagine the light bulb went off in Joseph’s head and he realized that God was giving him a role in His plan of redemption. He realized that God was asking him to be the earthly father of the Messiah. Joseph surely didn’t fully understand what that meant, but he didn’t need any more information and he didn’t ask for an explanation. He knew what God wanted him to do, so he did it.
Joseph went ahead with the marriage, but even after they were married, he didn’t have sex with Mary until after the child was born. Some have claimed that Mary remained a virgin forever, but Jesus had other siblings, so Mary and Joseph must have had children by normal means after Jesus. The reason Matthew includes the detail about Joseph not being with Mary physically until after the baby was born was that he was showing the kind of man that Joseph was. Joseph understood the importance of fulfilling the prophecy of the virgin birth so he played the role God asked him to play, and did not engage in sexual relations with his wife until after Jesus was born so there could be no question that this child was unique.
Later on, after the baby was born, Joseph did the other thing the angel had commanded him: he named the child Jesus.
This was not the only time the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. In Matthew 2 there are two more instances: the first was when God commanded him to flee with Jesus and Mary to Egypt to avoid King Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus, and the second was when God told him to return back home after Herod’s death. In both of those instances Joseph obeyed immediately and seemingly without question. We don’t know a great deal about Joseph but we do see one thing consistently—Joseph was obedient to the Lord’s commands to him, even when they were hard, difficult to understand, or didn’t make sense in the eyes of the world.
There are several things we can learn from the example of Joseph. The first is that God doesn’t always give us all the information we might want when he calls us to obedience. God didn’t give Joseph a lot of details. He simply told him to go ahead with the marriage even though his natural inclination was to divorce Mary. He told him to give the child the name Jesus even though that may not have been on the list of names Joseph would have chosen on his own. God doesn’t always answer all our questions when he asks us to do something. We are simply to trust that God knows what’s best and do what He asks, just as Joseph did.
Second, sometimes obeying God is costly. I’m sure Joseph thought about what it would mean for him to go ahead with this marriage. He would forever be ridiculed. Some would ridicule him because they would see the marriage as an admission of guilt on his part. Some would brand him as a sinner because Mary had gotten pregnant before they were officially married. This would have made him a second-class citizen in his community. Others might have ridiculed him as one who didn’t have a backbone, because even if they believed that Joseph wasn’t the father, they felt like he should have kicked Mary to the curb for being unfaithful. Joseph knew that many wouldn’t understand and wouldn’t believe their story, but he continued to follow God regardless of what the people around him said.
We face the same dilemma on a lesser scale each and every day.
- We face the choice of whether to love our enemies or to lash out at them. The world tells us that those who have wronged us deserve whatever we dish out, but God tells us that it is only when we forgive that we can be set free. When we do things God’s way we risk being seen as weak or spineless by a world that values revenge.
- We face the choice of whether to be honest in our dealings with others or to “shade the truth” in order to get ahead or get what we want. When we are honest with others we might not always get our way—it might cost us a sale, or we might have to admit we were wrong.
- We face the choice of whether to follow God’s moral standards or bend to those of our society. Sexual ethics (about pre-marital sex, homosexuality, etc.), the language we use, and how we handle conflict are all areas where our society’s moral standards (or lack thereof) fly in the face of God’s commands. We face a choice of what our basis of morality is. If we do things God’s way we might be branded as prudes or bigots or even worse.
- We face the choice of whether to serve joyfully where we are or to complain that we aren’t receiving our due. The world says to only work as hard as you have to, God says to give your all regardless of your position, your boss, or your pay. Doing things God’s way might make us unpopular with our coworkers, or might mean that we don’t get promoted as fast as we might like.
- We face the choice of whether to honor those who lead us even when we disagree, or to protest, to call them names, and launch personal attacks to get our way. Our society says that honoring those who disagree with us is weak, but God tells us that disagreement doesn’t have to mean disrespect.
This dilemma is not unique to Joseph. Each day we are called to count the cost and to ask ourselves who we trust more. Do we trust our judgment, that of our friends and family, or society as a whole? Or do we trust God above all else? Joseph’s choice had some negative consequences, but he chose wisely. We should as well, no matter the cost.
Third, sometimes God calls us to a task that seems bigger than us. Joseph was told that this child, Jesus, would be God himself! And Joseph was tasked with raising this child and caring for him as his own! Most new parents feel a little overwhelmed by the task ahead of them, but can you imagine if your first child was the Son of God? I can’t imagine the feelings of inadequacy Joseph must have felt!
In spite of this, Joseph knew that if this was the task God was calling him to, then God must have a plan for him. He surely felt inadequate to the task, but he resolved to do the best he could. What did that look like? It looked like continued obedience to the Lord. Every time God asked Joseph to do something, he responded with immediate obedience. Joseph knew that even when he wasn’t sure what to do, God was. So he chose to follow God’s instructions.
God may be asking you to do something that you don’t feel adequate to do. The challenge you face is to do it anyway. Instead of questioning why God chooses us for the tasks He does, we should simply be obedient, trusting that He will use us even when we don’t see how.
Fourth, we don’t always see the payoff right away. Have you ever noticed that Joseph is never mentioned during Jesus’ earthly ministry? Mary is mentioned several different times, but there is never any mention of Joseph. Most scholars believe this is because Joseph had died by the time Jesus began his ministry. He probably never got to see what God had done through him. He never got to see Jesus feed the multitudes or raise the dead. He never saw Jesus conquer sin and death at Calvary. Joseph faithfully carried out the task God had called him to, but he didn’t get to see the payoff in his lifetime.
One of my favorite missionary stories is that of William Carey. Carey spent 41 years as a missionary to India. During that time he saw very few people become Christians. Yet he had translated the Bible into local languages, recruited other missionaries, and laid a framework that eventually resulted in many in India coming to know Jesus. Carey’s work is being continued by others in India today. God called him to a great task, but he didn’t get to see the payoff. That didn’t deter Carey—he kept being faithful in his service, and trusted that God would use him.
We sometimes feel the same way don’t we? As pastors, it is tempting to look at men who are leading churches with thousands of people in attendance and who have teaching ministries that impact millions and conclude that what we are doing here doesn’t matter. But it does. So we keep serving faithfully, believing that God will use us even as we serve in a small town that most people have never heard of. You may feel that way too. You may think that because you aren’t in full-time ministry that your efforts for the Lord don’t amount to anything. When you share your faith, pray for others, or serve faithfully but don’t see results you may think your efforts are in vain. When that happens remember Joseph. Remember that just because we don’t get to see the results right away doesn’t mean that God’s not using us. He is.
Our focus this morning has been to look at Joseph’s encounter with the angel and his faithfulness of his response, but there is one important element we must not gloss over. We need to remember what the angel told Joseph about the baby who was going to be born. He said this child would be called Immanuel, which means God with us.
This is the truth at the center of the Christmas story. It is the reason Joseph endured the trials he did. It is the reason Joseph chose to go through with the marriage, even though he knew it would cost him. Joseph was faithful because he knew this child was God incarnate.
Many don’t recognize the real Jesus. They think of him as simply a great moral teacher or an interesting person in history, but they stop short of seeing him as God. Let me remind you, Christmas has no meaning unless the child who was born was God in the flesh. Because Jesus was (and is) God, He was able to do what no human being could. He was able to sacrifice His life in order to pay the penalty for our sin. It is because of Him that we can have hope in the midst of trying times.
Immanuel is the reason for us to be faithful. Jesus is God with us and it changes everything. Joseph found it hard to believe what the angel said, but once he understood who this child was, everything changed. The same should be true for you and me.
Who is Jesus to you? If you believe he was just a wise teacher or simply a legend that has arisen over time, then your Christmas celebration is really more about the cultural significance than the baby in the manger. As a result you will feel no real need to do what the Bible says. But if you recognize that Jesus was and is Immanuel, then you too will follow Him as Lord. You will no longer hear His words as the words of a man but as the very words of God. If we see who this baby really is then it should drive us to not only celebrate Him, but to worship Him and to follow Him faithfully—not only at Christmas, not only when it’s easy, but every day and in every way. Like Joseph we can be faithful because the knowledge that God is with us changes everything.