DIG: How could Mary possibly explain her pregnancy to Joseph? How would you feel if you were in Yosef’s place? What would you say to your family and friends? To God? What were his options? What reasons does Matthew give as to why Jesus was born? Apart from fulfilling prophecy, why was Jesus’ virgin birth necessary?
REFLECT: How have you experienced Yeshua ha'Meshiach as Immanuel in your life lately? What do you learn about faith from Joseph? What lessons can you learn from Joseph about submitting to the big purposes of ADONAI? When has the LORD seemed the most real, the most tangible, the most near to you?
Having verified that Yeshua’s lineage met the criteria for Him to be the Messiah, Matthew now turns to the actual events of His birth in Isra'el some 2000 years ago. Interwoven into Mary’s story is another story waiting to be told. In religious artwork as in real life, Joseph and Jude are two of a kind (see my commentary on Jude Ae – Jude, a Bond-Slave of Jesus Christ). His famous brother James, and his half-brother Jesus eclipsed Jude. Joseph stands in the shadows next to Miryam, who, along with her baby is highlighted on Christmas cards. He seems to always get mixed up with the shepherds. Like Jude, he knew what it was like to be the warm-up band for the real star of the story. The forgotten man in the margins, however, looms large in Mary’s story.
He was an incredible man. He and Mary had entered the first stage of the marriage ceremony (see Al – The Birth of Jesus Foretold to Mary). They had exchanged public vows, taken the first cup of wine under the huppah or canopy, and had entered the one year engagement period. In the eyes of the community they were “married” - but with no sexual contact. His response on learning the shattering news of Mary’s pregnancy proved just how extraordinary he was. Based on the facts, Miryam had betrayed him and broken her vows. Under the circumstances, Joseph had a legitimate right to be furious, or become vindictive, even bitter. He had a legal right to bring her to justice. But, as we shall see, Yosef wasn’t that kind of a man. ADONAI had done a work in his heart. He was a righteous man, intent on doing the right thing in God’s eyes, no matter what it cost him.88
Matthew tells the story from Joseph’s perspective. This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18). The emphasis is on the virgin birth because Mattityahu is trying to solve the problem of Jeconiah (see Ai – The Genealogies of Joseph and Mary). On three different occasions the virgin birth is emphasized. In Matthew 1:18 the inspired human author records: before they came together; in Mattityahu 1:22-23 he quotes Isaiah 7:14, saying: the virgin will be with child, and thirdly, in Matthew 1:25 he says that there was no union until she gave birth to a son.
So when Mary arrived back home in Nazareth, she saw her husband-to-be. More than likely he was not happy that she had chosen to be away from him for three months and, if he knew the secret, he hid it well. He had heard from Miryam’s mother that Elizabeth was pregnant, but surely there were other women in her town that could have taken care of her. The young girl did not argue with Joseph about it. She probably decided, from his attitude, that he knew nothing of the great secret. But without a doubt, she promised herself that she would not marry Yosef, if he would have her, without telling him of her pregnancy. So she decided just to do it. If he didn’t believe her explanation, he wouldn’t be a suitable stepfather anyway. There could not be any better way to find out than this. So she told him.
“I’m going to have a baby,” she said. This must have shaken Joseph to the core. She seemed so loyal and innocent. A virgin conceiving a child without having sex? Unbelievable! What had he missed? She had gone away for three months and came back pregnant!
It would be impossible to imagine the depths of sorrow in both of these young lovers’ hearts. He looked at her tenderly, but she offered no explanation. In all likelihood she looked away from him and wished that she could tell him everything. The baby was going to need a stepfather – who better than the man she loved, the gentle, dedicated and patient Joseph? Who knows, he might have been chosen for the role for these very reasons. Anyway, he would be the perfect guardian for her Son, the King. The question that had to be eating at her was this, “Why? Why had he not been told?” But hers’ was not to question, she was to trust and obey. She would not sit on her doubt.
Joseph had to get away to think. He was beside himself and confused. How could this happen? He was so sure! He loved her with all his heart and he had visions of a long and fruitful life with her. But now he felt betrayed and he could not understand it. He kept the unspeakable news to himself while he figured things out.
What could he do? He could divorce her publicly by addressing the elders at the gate of the community. If he did that, they would ask Miryam if she was pregnant. If she said yes, Yosef would have to swear he was not the father. The Oral Law (see Ei – The Oral Law) specifies four kinds of death penalty in descending order of gravity: stoning, burning, beheading and strangling (Sanhedrin 7:1). A man who has intercourse with a betrothed girl is subject to the same penalty as one who has intercourse with his mother, namely stoning (Sanhedrin 7:4). Someone who has sex with another man’s wife is liable to death by strangling (Sanhedrin 11:1).89 Of course, Jewish courts in this period dominated by Rome could not execute capital sentences, and by this time would not carry out the death sentence even if allowed to. Nevertheless, her premarital pregnancy would have likely ruined any chance of her ever marrying again. This was a horrible fate in an economically male-centered society where a woman’s honor depended on her status in relation to a man.90 However, there was another option. He could merely write her a certificate of divorce and send her away from his house quietly (Deuteronomy 24:1).91 It would be a private arrangement, not a public scandal. But if the truth be known, He really hated both options.
In contrast to most of modern Western culture, Yosef lived in a society where he had no option of giving Mary a second chance . . . even if he wanted to. The Oral Law (see Ei – The Oral Law) demanded that a man charge his wife immediately on discovery that she had not been a virgin. In a world that considered adultery the ultimate theft – the stealing of another man’s most precious possession, the undivided affection of his wife, the emotional response to adultery was often quite serious. Because a wife’s adultery could imply the husband’s inadequacy or his family’s poor choice of a mate, it shamed the husband as well. Thus, Miryam’s apparent betrayal had also brought him shame.92
He tossed and turned all night in bed. He couldn’t stop thinking about it. What would he do? Exhausted, he finally made up his mind. Because Joseph, her “husband” under the terms of the first stage of the Jewish wedding ceremony, was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he decided to divorce her quietly (Matthew 1:19). It would break his heart, but it would be just and, at the same time, merciful.
Within a few moments after the decision was reached, he was relieved. So relieved that he drifted off to sleep. But after he had come to this conclusion, an angel of ADONAI appeared to him in a dream, which was considered a sign of God’s favor (Matthew 1:20a). The rabbis taught that a good dream was one of the three things (the other two being a good king and a fruitful year) that marked the LORD’s favor. This belief was so popular that it developed into a popular saying: If anyone sleeps seven days without remembering their dream for interpretation, call them wicked and unremembered by Ha’Shem.93
This angel said: Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20b). Jesus had no human father, but He did have a human mother. Only then could the Messiah be the God-Man. This is the most natural and easiest explanation of the Incarnation (the word is taken from a Latin term meaning to enter into or become flesh).94 Apart from Jesus’ being both human and divine, there is no Gospel. Our whole faith is built on it. The essence and power of the Good News is that God became man and that, He, being both wholly God and wholly man, was able to reconcile mankind to God. Yeshua’s virgin birth, His substitutionary death on the cross, His resurrection, ascension and bodily return are all interwoven aspects of His deity. They stand or fall together.
The virgin birth should not have surprised those Jews who knew and believed in the TaNaKh. As a result of a misinterpretation of the phrase a woman will surround a man in Jeremiah 31:22, many rabbis taught that the Messiah would have an unusual birth. They said that He would have no earthly father. They taught that the birth of the Meshiach would be like the dew of ADONAI, as drops upon the grass without the action of a man. Consequently, even many rabbis assumed a unique birth for Yeshua.95
She will give birth to a Son, the angel continued, and you are to give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins (Mattityahu 1:21). The Hebrew word for He will save is yoshia, which has the same Hebrew root (yud-shin-ayin) as the name Yeshua (yud-shin-vav-ayin). Thus Jesus’ name is explained on the basis of what He will do. Actually, the name Yeshuais a contraction of the Hebrew name Y’hoshua, or Joshua, which means YHVH saves. It is also the masculine form of the Hebrew word yeshu’ah, which means salvation.96
When Joseph woke up, he wondered what it meant. Dreams were important, yes, but was he merely fooling himself? But then he remembered that his dream fulfilled an old prophecy to the letter. Isaiah had said: All this took place to fulfill what ADONAI had said through the prophet (see my commentary on Isaiah Cb – The LORD Himself Will Give You a Sign): The virgin will conceive and give birth to a Son (Matthew 1:22-23a). The fact that the definite article, the, is used before virgin shows that Isaiah had a specific virgin in mind – which turned out to be Mary. It wasn’t just any virgin - it was the particular one!
The Hebrew word for virgin used by Isaiah is almah. It is used only seven other times in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 24:43, 24:16; Exodus 2:8; Psalm 68:25; Proverbs 30:19; Song of Songs 1:3, 6:8), and in each instance it either explicitly means a virgin, or implies it, because in the Bible almah always refers to an unmarried woman of good reputation, or a virgin. Furthermore, Matthew here is quoting from the Septuagint, the first translation of the TaNaKh into Greek. More than two centuries before Jesus was born, the Jewish scholars of the Septuagint chose the Greek word parthenos to translate almah. Clearly, parthenos means virgin.97 For example, Athena was the virgin goddess of Athens and her temple was called the Parthenon because parthenos means virgin.
And they will call Him Immanuel, which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23b). Matthew quotes this from Isaiah (see above). But Jesus was not known by that name during His First Coming; rather, His name gave a hint at who He was by describing Him. He is God with us. Those who are His will experience the final fulfillment in the Eternal State (see my commentary on Revelation Fr – A New Heaven and a New Earth), when God will dwell with His people.
Can a person be a believer and deny the virgin birth? You might accept Jesus Christ without knowing much about Him. But after you are saved and read your Bible you cannot deny the virgin birth. Is that a little pushy? Well, I hope so because it's that important. I want a Savior who can reach down and save me. If He’s just another human like I am, then He’s not going to be able to help me very much. But if He’s Immanuel, God with us, virgin born, then He is my Savior. Is He your Savior today? He took upon Himself our humanity in this way so that He could die on the cross for you and I.98
No doubt Joseph felt like a thousand pounds were lifted from his shoulders. He was refreshed. Joyful. Happy even. The more he thought about his dream, the more clearly he saw the hand of God revealing a great truth to him. It was probably difficult for him to continue to work in his carpenters shop. More than likely it took everything in him not to run to Mary’s house, yelling: I know! I know! But at the right time, they talked. Joseph was faithful and did what the Angel of the LORD, or Malach ADONAI, had commanded him to do. The following week they were married and he took Miryam home as his wife (Mattityahu 1:24). He knew there would be misunderstanding in the community and much gossip as well, but Yosef placed God’s plan ahead of his own. Rather than make a name for himself, he made a home for Messiah.
When God revealed the truth to Joseph, he immediately believed and obeyed ADONAI, as unbelievable as it seemed. His response revealed his deep trust in God. Yosef was convinced enough by the dream to believe what was on natural terms impossible. This should be an example for us to trust and obey the LORD, responding differently than those who do not know His Word. Joseph’s obedience to Ha’Shem could have cost him his own reputation.99 Yet, Yosef was right there with her no matter how dangerous or difficult her path. He was firmly committed to God’s call on her life just as she was. Instead of privately putting her away, he publicly took her into his home and embraced her as his wife. Mary could have been unbearably alone, facing impossible odds to raise her son. But Joseph never let that happen.100
We know nothing else of Joseph’s life except his taking the infant Jesus to the Temple for dedication (Luke 2:22-33), his taking Miryam and the baby Yeshua to Egypt to protect Him from Herod’s bloody decree and the return from Egypt (Mattityahu 2:13-23), and his taking his family to the Passover in Jerusalem when the young Jesus was twelve (Luke 2:42-52). We have no idea when Yosef died, but it could have been well before Yeshua began His public ministry. Obviously it was before Messiah’s crucifixion because from the cross Jesus gave His mother to the care of the apostle John (Yochanan 19:26).101 He is the forgotten man of the Bible.
But he had no union with her until after she gave birth to her firstborn son (Matthew 1:25a). Joseph had no sexual relations with Mary until after she gave birth. But in addition, the word until tells us that she did not remain a virgin after the birth of Jesus. Nothing beyond that was needed to safeguard the deity of Christ and the purity of Mary. The Catholic church’s belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary is not biblical. Not only did she not remain a virgin, but we know she gave birth to at least six other children, four sons and at least two daughters.102
The priests in the Roman Catholic church make repeated references to “the Virgin Mary.” They acknowledge that Yosef and Miryam were husband and wife and attempt to portray them as the ideal human family, but deny that they lived in a normal marriage relationship. But such an unnatural relationship is absurd on the face of it, and nowhere in Scripture is approval ever given for such an abnormal relationship. In fact, just the opposite is true. In Rabbi Sha’ul’s letter to the church at Corinth concerning married life, he says: The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband . . . do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time (not a lifetime), so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control (First Corinthians 7:3 and 5). Such an arrangement would have been contrary to nature and simply a frustration for both parties. The priests must give up the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity, or give up the idea that Joseph and Mary represent the ideal human family.103
And she gave Him the name Jesus (Matthew 1:25b). The name had been revealed to Miryam, now it was revealed to Joseph as well. The name was to be given because He will save His people from their sins (Mattityahu 1:21).104
There was only one thing that was troubling. Knowing the Scriptures as they did, they realized that the King of kings would be born in Beit-Lechem, the City of David. Their Son, however, would be born in Nazareth, a little place over ninety miles north of Bethlehem if they went through Samaria. Mary had no intention of traveling anywhere. In the summer months, and the early fall, the older women of the town would have noticed that she was pregnant, and they probably counseled her to remain close to home. She would not go to see Elizabeth’s baby, so why would she consider traveling to Bethlehem? Joseph nodded. He felt the same way. Beit-Lechem was too far away, and humanly speaking he had no intention of taking his pregnant wife on a donkey all that way to get there.
Joseph valued obedience to ADONAI above his own honor. As soon as God revealed the truth to him, he immediately believed and obeyed His will, as unbelievable as the truth might be. This revealed the depth of Yosef’s trust, especially since the revelation was limited to a dream. This should, in turn, summon us to obey the LORD, responding differently than those who do not trust His Word. Because he alone received this revelation, others at that time would still think that he had gotten Miryam pregnant before the wedding. He would remain an object of shame in a society dominated by the value of honor. Joseph’s obedience cost him the right to value his own reputation. How much do you trust God?105