It’s interesting that the gospel of Matthew begins the story of the Incarnation with a curious plot twist. In Matthew’s version of the birth of Christ a glaring scandal was exposed. It would seem that even in the womb controversy surrounded the person known as Jesus. Be that as it may, we will soon discover that Matthew had intentional reasons for divulging this information to his Jewish audience.
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly.”
To understand why Mary’s mysterious pregnancy was scandalous knowledge of ancient Middle Eastern marriage custom is necessary. In those days when a man wanted to marry a woman he would talk to the woman’s father and if the father gave his blessing he would betroth his daughter to the man, which meant both father and potential husband would enter a contract and agree on a price for the bride. Note that the father did not auction his daughter as a slave; rather, the price was considered a gift to compensate the father for the loss of his daughter’s services to the household. Once the contract was settled the woman legally became the man’s wife even though the marriage wouldn’t be consummated until a later date. Therefore, any crime against the woman during the betrothal period was also a crime against the father and her betrothed husband. So, when Mary was found to be with child it was assumed that a crime had indeed occurred, be it rape or adultery. Joseph’s action suggests that he suspected adultery for he had made up his mind to divorce Mary secretly in order to spare her from public humiliation.
Joseph’s decision to deal with the matter in private says much about his character. Matthew notes this by referring to Joseph as “being a just man,” which is an interesting choice of words given that Joseph acted contrary to Deuteronomic Law. According to code Joseph would have been within his right to contest his betrothal to Mary based on the grounds of infidelity and have the matter brought before the elders of the city; however, he chose not to do that in order to spare Mary the shame and embarrassment of a trial. And his decision to protect Mary from indignity came even before the angelic visitation that provided him with a proper course of action. More about that in a moment, but for now suffice it to say that Joseph’s love for Mary superseded the law’s desire for justice as evidenced by the fact that he kept the whole affair out of the public eye.
This raises several questions. Why did Mary keep the news of her pregnancy to herself, telling only Elizabeth who, by the way, already knew? Why did she not confide in Joseph or her parents? Was it out of fear that she wouldn’t be believed? Was she trying to avoid what in her mind would no doubt lead to an awkward and seemingly “impossible to explain” situation? Or was she simply ill-equipped to deal with such a complex problem at her young age and therefore reasoned to herself, “Best not to say anything and hope that no one will notice?” Unfortunately, whatever her reasons, Joseph did notice (for pregnancies are hard to hide) and was troubled by the news. The text continues…
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.” So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” 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.
So Joseph was troubled and agonized over what to do about Mary. Have you ever had a situation where you weren’t sure what to do; where the lines between right and wrong were blurred, which caused you much angst? That was Joseph – as “he thought about these things.” In his grief Joseph fell asleep and an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and gave him clarity.
It was not in God’s plan for Joseph to divorce his wife but it was in Joseph’s. But God, being unfavorable toward Joseph’s decision to divorce Mary, decided to intervene. As the truth regarding Mary was disclosed Joseph was persuaded to change his mind, which, by the way, is what it means to repent – to change your mind (literally) or to change your thinking (pragmatically) – and a change of mind naturally brings about a change of action. For Joseph this change in his thinking resulted in the rescue of his marriage to Mary.
Now in addition to redirecting his steps the angel gave Joseph revelation as to the nature of the child in Mary’s womb. First, that the child was conceived through an act of the Holy Spirit and not by illegitimate means. This news obviously comforted and encouraged Joseph. Second, that the child would be male. Third, the instruction to name the child JESUS (meaning Jehovah saves) for his mission would be to save his people from their sins.
I wonder what Joseph thought about that last statement, that his Son would be the Savior? Can you imagine having the responsibility of raising a child who would grow up to be the Messiah, the Savior of all? Just the phrase, “he will save his people from their sins,” could be a blog post in and of itself. What does it mean? Who are “his people”? Are his people the Israelites? Christians? Pagans? Barbarians? Wouldn’t “his people” refer to all people since Jesus created them all? Yes! All are his, but all need saving. Saving from what exactly? From “their sins.”
The term “sin” is an umbrella term that includes offenses of all kinds – from minor improprieties to erroneous crimes – Jesus will save each of us from them all. All my failures, all my mistakes, all the wrongs that I’ve done, all the wrongs done to me, every misguided step I’ve ever taken Jesus plans to save me. And this he does despite what the Law says. Like Joseph to Mary, Jesus’s love for his people supersedes the law’s desire for justice as evidenced by the fact that he will save us from our sins.
Matthew concludes his story of the Incarnation by explaining that all this was done in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy regarding a Son who would be born to a virgin who would be called Immanuel, meaning God with us. And if God is for us who or what can stand against us. Not the Law, not sin because love supersedes both.
 Matthew 1:18-19 (NKJV)
 Bromiley, G.W., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), Vol. 3, pg. 262
 Matthews, Victor H., Manners and Customs in the Bible: An Illustrated Guide to Daily Life in Bible Times (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1988) pg. 133
 Deuteronomy 22:13-21
 Luke 1:41-45
 Matthew 1:18-25 (NKJV)
 John 1:3,10; Ephesians 3:9; Colossians 1:16; Revelation 4:11
 Isaiah 7:14