Scripture: And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. Matthew 1:19-20 ESV
Observation: The birth story, as told by Matthew, is brief and focuses on Joseph (in keeping with citing Jesus’ genealogy through Joseph’s line). Verse 18 tells us that Joseph and Mary were not married but betrothed. Betrothal in ancient Israel was a binding covenant to marry; to sever it would require a writ of divorce. While stronger in commitment to our modern-day engagement, betrothal similarly entailed the preparation of the couple for marriage, which included sexual abstinence (as practiced from our biblical worldview). So when Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant, being a kind and godly man, he decided to discretely divorce her to avoid adding to her shame (verse 19 above).
How so? Sadly, in ancient Israel, if a woman conceived a child outside of wedlock and incurred divorce, she would be cast to the margins of society, likely for the rest of her life. So Mary’s gracious Lord sent an angel to speak to Joseph in a dream and announce what the prophet Isaiah foretold: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (verse 23), quoted from Isaiah 7:14. Thus when Joseph awoke from his dream, he followed the angel’s directive and married Mary and abstained from sex until she gave birth to the Christ-child (vv.24-25). Matthew then concludes his version of the birth story by telling his readers that Joseph named his stepson Jesus (a derivation of Joshua, which means “God is salvation”). Moreover, as Matthew tells us, Jesus’ prophetic name, Immanuel, means “God with us.”
Takeaway: Theologically, we may deduce from this passage that God is faithful, gracious, and holy. He is faithful in being true to his word foretold through the prophet Isaiah, is gracious in caring for the needs of the chosen mother of his incarnate Son, and is holy in as much as he will not draw near the presence of unatoned sin. Thus, Mary must remain sexually pure until after the birth of Jesus to ensure the Messiah does not inherit sin from the line of Adam. (To be clear, avoiding conjugal relations has nothing to do with our Creator’s view of sex, which he blesses within monogamous marriages where both partners selflessly seek to please their partner. Instead, the issue here is unatoned sin. The atoning work of Christ through his sacrificial death and resurrection is yet to occur.)
From a relational standpoint, we see a model of how a Christ-centered marriage should function. Even with infidelity, where divorce is warranted, the offended spouse must take the high road and not pursue revenge. Because if we succumb to our emotions and seek the harm of our offending spouse, we deny the grace and forgiveness of our Lord to them and us. But if we follow Joseph’s example and wait on our Lord to show us the bigger picture and next steps, he will guide us to godly friends and counselors who will help us persevere through our hurt feelings and forgiveness and find restoration for our souls. And all the while, Immanuel is with us, saving us from ourselves.
Please note: In any abusive relationship, the persecuted partner should take immediate measures to protect themselves and their children from further harm. The above discussion solely pertains to exacting revenge and withholding forgiveness.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who saw the bigger picture as the Savior of our world. Would you please help us to follow his and his step-father’s examples and wait on you to reveal your broader purposes and next steps when we are offended by others and not seek revenge against those who have hurt us? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling