April 20, 2021

March 25, nine months before Christmas, is the date that is often associated with the Annunciation to Mary, Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that, by the coming of the Spirit upon her, she would conceive and bear the heir to David’s throne, whose kingdom would have no end.  The story is told in Luke 1.  Matthew says nothing about it—nothing directly, that is.

Instead, Matthew tells us the story of Joseph.  I suspect that to many, Joseph is something of a shadowy figure in the whole story. We know he’s there.  He is betrothed to Mary, of course.  He takes her with him to Bethlehem.  But he often seems to be standing off to the side, while Mary and Jesus and the shepherds and the wise men take center stage.  Joseph?  His only time in the spotlight is when he has to be talked into marrying Mary when he learns that she’s pregnant.  We may even get the impression that Joseph is disposable.  For the story of Jesus, we could do just as well without him.

But we don’t get that impression from Matthew’s Gospel.  Luke tells us a lot of Mary’s story, but Matthew tells us about Joseph. For Matthew, Joseph is central, as important as Mary.  Matthew wants us to know that without Joseph—without Joseph’s involvement months before Jesus was born—there would be no Christmas story.  Joseph is crucially important not only in connection with Jesus’ birth but even in connection with His conception.


But Joseph wasn’t involved in Jesus’ conception, was he?  That’s true enough.  Matthew has already indicated that Joseph didn’t beget Jesus.  His genealogy is a series of X begot Y until he comes to the end: “Jacob begot Joseph, the husband of Mary, from whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”  Jesus was born of Mary, but it wasn’t Joseph who begot him.

But then how does Jesus fit in this line Matthew has traced from Abraham to David?  That is what Matthew goes on to explain: “And of Jesus Christ, the begetting was as follows, because his mother Mary, having been betrothed to Joseph, before their coming together, was found to be pregnant from the holy Spirit” (Matt 1:18).  “This is how Jesus’ conception and birth took place,” Matthew is saying, “because of what happened and when it happened and how it happened.”

When did it happen?  When Mary was betrothed to Joseph.  Betrothal was not engagement as we have it today.  Engagement you can break off.  But betrothal was a binding pledge to marry; it required a divorce to end it, as we see in this story.  In the Torah, if a betrothed woman has relations with another man, that is not fornication but adultery.  And so here, Mary is called Joseph’s wife and he is called her husband.  When she becomes pregnant, then, that means that Joseph is now expecting a child in his family.  This is how Joseph is involved even in the conception.

But they had not yet come together.  They had not consummated the marriage nor were they yet cohabiting.  And this is how Joseph is not involved.  Matthew is making it clear that the baby is not Joseph’s child.  This baby is not the latest in the long line of “X begot Y.”

And in this time between betrothal (past) and coming together (future), Mary “was found to be pregnant from the holy Spirit.”

Often, the story is told this way: Mary knows from Gabriel that she is going to bear a child, but she hasn’t told anyone in her immediate vicinity, least of all Joseph.  Then, about three months into the pregnancy, she starts to show and the talk begins.  People in the synagogue begin to notice.  They speculate: Is it Joseph’s baby?  Or has Mary been unfaithful?  And Mary has to bear that shame, all those people thinking that she has sinned—and Joseph too.

But the Bible doesn’t tell us that story.  What does Matthew tell us?  He says that Mary was found to be pregnant of unknown origin, right?  No!  He says that Mary “was found to be pregnant from the holy Spirit.”  That last phrase is not Matthew parenthetically informing us of something we need to know but no one knew at the time.  Matthew says that that is what Mary was found to be—pregnant from the holy Spirit.  That is what people thought, Matthew is saying.  That was the conclusion people came to, that God’s own Spirit had brought about this pregnancy.

Matthew doesn’t tell us how people could have come to that conclusion, but Luke does.  In Luke, Gabriel appears to Mary and she goes to visit Elizabeth for the first three months of her pregnancy.  As soon as Elizabeth sees Mary, Elizabeth’s baby leaps for joy in her womb and Elizabeth is filled with the holy Spirit and she knows: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  She calls Mary the “mother of my Lord.”

Mary doesn’t keep silent about what Gabriel had told her.  In Luke’s Gospel, she sings about it.  There’s no reason to think she didn’t discuss it with Elizabeth.  For the first three months of her pregnancy—long enough for her to start to show—Mary is in the home of Elizabeth and Zacharias the priest, and she has them to vouch for her.  In fact, Luke says, “All these sayings”—there is no reason to limit that phrase to the material relating to John the Baptist and not include what Luke has told us about Mary—“All these sayings were discussed throughout all the hill country of Judea” (Luke 1:65).

Matthew doesn’t tell us all of that.  He simply tells us that Mary was found, not just to be pregnant, not to be pregnant from Joseph, not to be pregnant of an unknown father, but specifically to be pregnant from the holy Spirit.  The genealogy from Abraham to David had run into a dead end and there was no way that David’s heirs could pull themselves up by their bootstraps to regain the throne and bring about the future God had promised to and through David and Abraham.  But now there is a child in a woman’s womb, a child not begotten by man but by the holy Spirit of God.


But it happens—remember the timing—between betrothal and coming together.  If all that mattered was that Jesus be conceived by a woman who was a virgin, God could have chosen a single woman, a woman who wanted to stay unmarried.  But he didn’t.  He chose a woman who was already betrothed, a woman who was already legally a wife, a woman who wanted to be married (with all that that normally involves).  And that poses a problem for Joseph.  Or at least, he thinks it does.

Once again, we usually hear the story this way: Joseph knew the baby wasn’t his child and therefore Mary had to have been unfaithful.  And so, being a righteous man he knows that she deserves death as an adulteress.  Since the Jews allegedly couldn’t carry out the death penalty, he has to divorce her.  But because he is also a merciful and compassionate man, he does not want to pillory her, to expose her to public disgrace, and so he plans to get a Hillel divorce, a no-fault divorce, that did not require accusations or witnesses and could be done more secretly.

But that is not what Matthew says.  He has just told us that Mary was found to be pregnant from the holy Spirit and there is therefore no reason to think that Joseph doesn’t know that.  Surely Mary would have told him, of all people.  Surely if he had questions, she could have referred him to Zacharias and Elizabeth for confirmation.  Surely if that is what Mary was found to be, that is what Joseph also found her to be. 

Matthew doesn’t tell us that Joseph was suspicious, let alone angry or even hurt.  Instead, Matthew tells us that Joseph was afraid to take her as his wife (1:20).  He was not refusing to take her as his wife because he thought she was unfaithful.  He was afraid to.  Fear is what we often see in Scripture when people come in contact with God and his work, and that is what Joseph is encountering here.

Matthew says that Joseph was righteous.  That does not mean simply that he was law-abiding. It means, in Scripture, that he feared God, that he wanted to do what was right in God’s eyes.  A righteous man wants to do the right thing, the God-pleasing thing, in every situation—in this situation.  The holy Spirit has worked in Mary.  Joseph is righteous.  And therefore he does not want her publicly disgraced.  He doesn’t want to divorce her publicly, lest anyone think she was immoral.  He wants to preserve her name. And so his plan is to divorce her without charging her publicly with any sin.

Because he is righteous, he wants to divorce her secretly.  But because he is righteous, he also does want to divorce her.  Fixed in his mind is this: The Spirit has acted in Mary in an unheard-of way and therefore surely Mary is off limits, set apart for a special task.  Mary is the Spirit’s workshop, and Joseph is afraid to interfere, afraid to take her has his wife.  By giving her a bill of divorce he will set her free for her holy task without any shame.  In fact, all the disadvantage would go to Joseph; people might blame him, not her, with wrongdoing.

God lets Joseph wrestle with this thought.  Joseph has to be willing to step aside, willing to set aside marriage, for the Spirit’s work.  He must understand that he is not allowed to intrude, that what is happening is not somehow going to be his work.  But God doesn’t let him go down the path of divorce: “While he was considering these things, look! An angel of the Lord in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to yourself Mary your wife, for the thing begotten in her is from the Spirit, the holy one, and she will bear a son, and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

“Joseph, son of David.”  Joseph is not the begetter, but he is not out of the picture.  He is the son of David.  There is no hint in Scripture that Mary is from David’s lineage.  Only Joseph is.1  But the Messiah must be. 

That is why it is so important that the baby be conceived while Mary is betrothed to Joseph.  And that is why it is so important that Joseph not divorce Mary.  If he had, the baby would have been born outside David’s house and lineage.  Joseph’s faithful involvement is crucial for the fulfillment of God’s promises, crucial for Christmas.

The angel issues a command here.  He is not relieving Joseph’s suspicion (“Whew! I can marry her after all!”).  He is giving Joseph a mission: “Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife”—that implies that Joseph must do so—“because the thing begotten in her is from the Spirit, the holy one.”  The word order puts emphasis on the term “holy.”  Holiness in the Bible has to do with access to God.  The Spirit is holy: he searches the mind of God.  And what the angel wants Joseph to know is that all of this—including Mary’s betrothal to Joseph—is God’s plan.  The holy Spirit is not disrupting their marriage; he is planning to use their marriage for his holy plan.

And furthermore, “she will bear a son.”  And Joseph has a job to do: to name the son, to welcome him into his house, which is David’s house.  The son is going to be the king who has a people (“his people”).  But he is going to have a special name: Jesus.  That was a common name in Jesus’ day, but not one that was ever found in David’s family line.  It sets the mandate for Jesus.  It is a signpost for Jesus and for those who trust in him. “Call him this,” the angel says, “because he will save his people from their sins.”

Matthew’s readers  understand that the name Jesus is the Hebrew name Joshua and that it means “YHWH saves.”  YHWH saves, but the angel tells Joseph that he—Jesus, the baby in Mary’s womb—“will save.”  What Psalm 130:8 says of YHWH—“He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins”—is brought about by Jesus.  When we hear this name, we remember that Jesus is YHWH himself in the flesh.

But we may also think of Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ successor.  He was the one who led Israel out of the wilderness—the wilderness they had to wander in because of their rebellion and sins—and into the promised land.  So, too, Jesus will lead Israel not only out of Egypt but into the Kingdom.

But we ought to think especially of another Joshua in the Bible, Joshua son of Jehozadak, to us a rather obscure figure, but not to Matthew’s readers.  He was the high priest after the return from exile, serving alongside Zerubbabel, the uncrowned governor from David’s house.  Joshua becomes the personal promise-bearer of liberation from sins when he receives clean garments in Zechariah 3 and the Angel of YHWH says to him,

            Hear, O Joshua, the high priest,

            You and your companions who sit before you,

            For they are a wondrous sign;

            For behold, I am bringing forth my servant the Branch….

            And I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day (Zech 3:8–9).

The Branch, Joshua/Jesus, and the coming day are linked there and then Zechariah has to crown this high priest:

            Behold, the man whose name is the Branch!

            From his place he will branch out,

            And he will build YHWH’s temple;

            Yes, he will build YHWH’s temple.

            He will bear the glory

            And will sit and rule on his throne.

            So he will be a priest on his throne,

            And the counsel of peace will be between them both (Zech 6:12–13).

Joshua son of Jehozadak wears the crown for that day only and then it is placed in the temple as a memorial, looking forward to the coming of Jesus, to the day when iniquity is taken away and Joshua/Jesus is priest and king.  And how would that happen when priest and king at this point are separate?  “‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says YHWH of armies” (Zech 4:6).

Jesus’ conception means that the day is coming when iniquity will be taken away, when the priest will be king, when YHWH’s temple will be built, when the kingdom will come in all its fullness (cf. Zech 14).  He will save his people from their sins, not only by bringing about forgiveness but by freeing them from the power of sin and the effects of sin.  He teaches, he heals, he dies, he rises, he pour out the Spirit of glory and life, he restores Israel and the world, the whole of creation, and brings it to its goal.

The angel gives Joseph this mandate—to take Mary as his wife, so that the child is Joseph’s, and to give him this name—and then the angel backs up what he says by quoting Isaiah 7: “All of this happened in order to fulfill that which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, ‘Look!  A virgin will become pregnant and bear a son, and they will call his name Emmanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us.’”

In Isaiah 7, Judah, ruled by Ahaz, is threatened by Israel and Syria but refuses a sign from YHWH.  But YHWH gives this sign anyway—a sign that may be fulfilled in some way by the birth of Isaiah’s own son, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.  But what Isaiah goes on to say about Immanuel (Isa 9) is far too big for Isaiah’s son.  This is a sign, not so much to Ahaz (who rejected a sign) but to the house of David, a sign that YHWH will deliver.  God acts by his Spirit, the virgin bears a son who saves his people from their sins, and they will call him “God with us.” 

That is where Matthew’s Gospel begins.  And that is where it ends up: Jesus says at the end “I am with you always.”  Through his life and teaching and healing and suffering and death and resurrection we see that Jesus himself is God with us.

The angel is not here to reassure Joseph about Mary or to relieve his suspicions or calm his anger or sooth his hurt.  He is here to give Joseph a mandate.  And that is how Joseph receives this message: as a command.  Ahaz rejected the sign for David’s house, but Joseph son of David receives it and cooperates with the fulfillment of it.  He wakes up and responds in faith: “He did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took to himself his wife.”

That was the first thing the angel had said to do and Joseph doesn’t hesitate.  This child will be in David’s house, and in this way all the promises to David and about David and his seed will be fulfilled. 

Still, Joseph does not know her—he has no sexual relations with her—though she is in his home.  Not now.  Not until after the birth.  Why not?  Matthew doesn’t say, but it is probably related to the reason Joseph planned to divorce her.  She is, for now, the Spirit’s workplace and Joseph rightly does not interfere.  The child is to be born of a virgin—the angel has said so—and Joseph keeps her a virgin till the baby is born.

The angel had said to take her.  He had said that she would bear a son.  And when she does, Joseph calls his name Jesus.  He wasn’t involved in the conception of this son, though it was crucial that the son be conceived while Mary was in David’s house and that Joseph take her as his wife, keeping her in David’s house.  But now he is involved: He takes this baby as his son by naming him, but as God’s son by giving him the name Jesus

David’s genealogy has reached a dead end, moving from famous names to a list of nobodies, and there was nothing man could do to bring the Liberator.  But what man could not do, God has done by his Spirit, setting man aside (“A virgin will conceive”: it isn’t Joseph’s doing and so Joseph backs off) and yet keeping his promises (a child in David’s house, Abraham’s line: Joseph must be involved; the baby must be in Joseph’s house which is David’s). 

The spotlight falls on Joseph here in Matthew’s Gospel as it falls on Mary in Luke’s.  Joseph sets aside his fear, proper as it is in connection with God’s mysterious work, and takes Mary in faith and in faith names her son, his son, God’s son.  And so, as Jakob van Bruggen puts it, “The chopped down trunk of Jesse learns to be liberated by faith alone.”2

John Barach has served as the pastor of several churches in Canada and the United States and works as a freelance writer and editor.  He is currently working on the forthcoming Theopolis Psalter. 

  1. Both Matthew 1 and Luke 3 give genealogies which, however much they differ, are the genealogies of Joseph.  There is no legitimate way to read either as Mary’s genealogy.  For a discussion of these genealogies and a proposal of one way in which they may harmonize, see Jakob van Bruggen, Christ on Earth: The Gospel Narratives as History (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 117–119. ↩︎
  2. I owe not only this line but most of the exegesis undergirding this essay to Jakob van Bruggen, Matteus: Het evangelie voor Israel, 3rd ed., CNT (Kampen: Kok, 1994), whose work, sadly, is not available in English.  Cf. also Van Bruggen, Christ on Earth, 112.  The wording here is mine; the exegetical insight, I gladly acknowledge, is his.  Van Bruggen points out that the view that Joseph wanted to distance himself from Mary because he was afraid to interfere with the work of the Spirit was held in the early church by  Eusebius, Basil, Ephraim, and Theophylactus. ↩︎
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