First, for the uninitiated, a little background: Mostly for the benefit of the members of the congregation I serve as pastor, I'm posting bits of background on the Bible texts around which our weekend worship is being built. I want to invite people into a consideration of the texts to help us all better prepare for worship.
I usually only focus on one text each week. But the folks at Changing Church, who produce fabulous resources for churches, worship leaders, musicians, and preachers, suggest the use of two texts for this week. Between Second Peter 3:8-15a and Matthew 1:18-25, they've identified a common theme: the surprising ways in which God works even in the midst of our confusion. In the Second Peter text, the first-century post-resurrected churches addressed are confused that the risen Jesus hasn't yet returned to the earth from heaven. In the Matthew text, Joseph is confused by the pregnancy of his betrothed wife, Mary. God's ways can confuse us. But God's track record of faithfulness and love beckons us to trust Him even in confusing times.
In two previous posts (here and here) about these texts, I've given an overview of Second Peter; recommended that for a good general understanding of Matthew, you can check out my still-incomplete blogging series, Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time; and done a verse-by-verse examination of the Second Peter passage.
Now, I want to look at the Matthean text in some detail, beginning with a few general observations about Matthew's Gospel.
Of the four Gospels in the New Testament, only Luke and Matthew present the story of Jesus' birth. In spite of the frenzied emphasis placed on Christmas in our culture, a good argument can be made that the birth of Jesus isn't that significant from a faith perspective. Of course, He had to be born in order to fulfill His mission of dying and rising to give new life to humanity--a good reason to focus at Christmastime on John 1:1-18 and Philippians 2:4-11, Biblical passages that go to the reason why God became human and came into our world. But Jesus tells His followers to remember His death, not His birth.
Luke and Matthew tell the story of the birth from different perspectives. Luke sees it through the experience of Mary, the young virgin chosen by God to give birth to the Savior of the world. It's in Luke's telling of the Christmas story that the angel Gabriel announces her pregnancy to Mary; that she responds with the eloquent Magnificat, rooted in the song of Hannah, a once-barren woman whose prayers for a child were answered when she learned that she would give birth to Samuel (First Samuel 2:1-10); and that Mary travels to be with her relative, Elizabeth--a woman who, like Hannah, Sarah, and Rachel suffered long years of barrenness--when she gives birth to John the Baptist.
Matthew, by contrast, tells the story through the prism of Joseph's experience. Joseph is described by Matthew as righteous. One commentary, that by W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann, points out: "Contemporary usage in Josephus shows that the Greek [of dikaios, righteous] means 'one obedient to the commands of God, an upright man, man of character.'"
Like his Old Testament namesake, Joseph is a man who receives dreams, one of which occurs in our text. Viewing his dreams as directives from God, Joseph obediently protects the child to whom Mary is to give birth, although they have no marital relations until after Jesus' birth.
Luke and Matthew give us two important sides to the story of Jesus' birth, allowing us to see both the wrestling and the faithfulness of two people called to play significant roles in God's plans for the human race.
Now onto the specific verses of the text...
v. 18: This verse succinctly lays out the scandal and the miracle of Mary's situation.
Betrothal was a far more significant relational status than today's engagements. Albright and Mann point out that "the penalty for fornication with one person while betrothed to another was death for both guilty parties" (Deuteronomy 21:13ff). They also point out that verse 19's use of the term husband for Joseph underscores the seriousness of betrothal.
The Holy Spirit has always been the creative Force of the Three-in-One God. He was the One Who bore upon the waters of primordial chaos to create the world (Genesis 1:2).
v. 19: Joseph planned to do the right thing, but with no humiliation of Mary. The law provided that a man in Joseph's position could divorce his betrothed wife (Deuteronomy 22:13ff). But this was usually done in a public way. Joseph decided to divorce Mary "quietly," in what is speculated would have been a private ceremony involving as few as two witnesses.
The Second Peter text for this week says that on Jesus' return, all our misdeeds will be publicly exposed (Second Peter 3:10). But Joseph intends to do nothing to expose Mary's supposed misdeed, which will inevitably be revealed in any case. There's a lesson to be learned from the pairing of these two passages: It's God's job to show people's wrongs to others, not ours!
Joseph was determined that he should do the right thing. But he had no interest in doing so at the expense of Mary. This is so different from the way we usually operate. We seem to relish showing others to be wrong and ourselves right. We love to tell "hero stories" about ourselves, preferably with some morally deficient person as the foil.
v. 20: Albright and Mann point out, "Only a direct revelation, here in a dream, will indicate what is the hidden purpose of God." Dreams, most notably those given to Joseph, named for the Old Testament figure revered for his dreams, play a prominent role in revealing God's will in Matthew's Gospel.
We may disdain the notion that such things happen. But for a good modern examination of dreams as revelations of God's will, see Morton Kelsey's book, called Dreams.
Of course, Christians believe that the ultimate arbiter of God's will is His Word, the Bible. If our dreams, hunches, passions, or obsessions do not conform with God's revealed will in the Bible, we can bet that they are not from God!
Marriage, again according to Albright and Mann, had two parts: "the betrothal and the taking of the bride to the bridegroom's house...the beginning and the ending, of the legal process of marriage."
I find it interesting that the angel tells Joseph not to be afraid of taking Mary as his wife. Afraid of what? Several possibilities suggest themselves: fear of taking a wife who would not be faithful to him; fear of public humiliation; fear of general public opinion. Whatever the source of Joseph's fear, the messenger from God tells him to ignore it.
v. 21: Jesus' "office" is clearly revealed to Joseph. Roughly, Jesus' Name means, God saves.
v. 22: Matthew takes great pains throughout his Gospel to show us the ways in which Jesus' life, death, and resurrection represent the fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture.
v. 23: Emmanuel, meaning God with us, points out the incarnational element of Jesus' identity. To be incarnated is to be enfleshed or embodied. Jesus was the living embodiment of eternal God. This is why the words He gives for Holy Communion are so significant, "This is My body, given for you."
Albright and Mann point out that the very sense of the term meaning God with us "is of God's active vindication of His people (cf. Psalm 46:7, 11)." In other words, the advent--the coming--of Jesus vindicates the trusting faith of generations of God's people, Israel, that He would send a Messiah Who would set all to right for those who follow Him!
v. 24: Among the many "miracles" of Jesus' birth, I think, is the obedience of both Mary and Joseph. It isn't that they don't doubt. We see their doubts expressed in both the Matthean and Lucan accounts of the birth. But they both act on their faith, offering obedient service to God in spite of their doubts and wondering. Joseph must have felt that he could and should obey the message from God because it was consistent with what he knew about God from the Hebrew Scriptures, what we now call the Old Testament.
v. 25: This passage indicates that while Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived in her womb, after the birth of the child, she and Joseph had normal marital relations.
What always amazes me about Matthew's telling of the story of Jesus' birth is how matter-of-fact he is about it. There is no overwrought rhetoric, no polemic against doubting Thomases, no pyrotechnics. He simply tells the story, something which must surely tell skeptics--like I once was--that there is the smell of truth to it.
UPDATE: You may also want to check out the take of Lutheran pastor Brian Stoffregen on this passage here.