Matthew 1:18-25

In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, there is no doubt, from chapter 1 onward, who he is, and what he’s come to do. We’ve seen the bloody list of names laid out, the ancestors of Jesus, their sins forever staining the pages of Scripture.

And the beauty of the list is in the last name: Jesus. He’s coming to put an end to sin, to fulfill God’s promise to send a man who would stop his people from sinning and would set up an everlasting, righteous kingdom.

But you can imagine the confusion felt by the immediate witnesses of the event. Nothing went like anything remotely like anyone was expecting. Matthew makes it explicit, detail by detail: almost everything about Jesus confuses, shocks, and offends. And the first one to confront this  is Joseph.

What’s missing here? Our mind fills in the blanks with the shepherds, and the stable, and the angels, and all of Luke’s glorious, scenic portrayal of the birth… but none of that is here in Matthew. I had to read it three or four times before I noticed it wasn’t there.

There’s nothing. There’s one sentence, in 25, about the actual birth.

Instead you have a story about divorce, and prophecy, and it’s confusing and morally questionable. It seems to raise twice as many questions as it answers. It begins by explaining a question – How did the birth of Jesus come about? Answer: “Before they came together, she was found to be with child.” Impossible! That doesn’t explain anything. “…through the Holy Spirit.” That doesn’t really clarify it, does it?

We just read a list of 47 names, every one of them with a father. Abraham the father of Isaac, the father of Jacob, the father of Judah…. Everyone who has ever been born has been the child of a father, and then this one shows up. This baby shows up out of nowhere, conceived without a father… did you notice how Matthew did it? He snuck the passive voice into v. 16… “of whom was born Jesus,” and referring to Mary, and not Joseph. Joseph is NOT the true father of Jesus.

There it is – 1st question. How was Jesus conceived? Answer: when his mother was still a virgin, and through the Holy Spirit. One question, two confusing answers that prompt a hundred more questions.. First sentence of the story.

And then Matthew’s going to do it again. Here’s the 2nd question. How is Joseph, the husband of Mary, introduced in v. 16, going to react to this situation? Answer: “Because [he] was a just man, and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Second question, another confusing answer that prompts another hundred questions. We could stop right there and be baffled.

What does it mean that Joseph is “just”? And what does it have to do with exposing her to public disgrace? And how do either of those things lead to the conclusion of “divorce her quietly”?

To answer the question of how “not wanting to expose her to public disgrace” leads to “divorce her quietly,” consider Joseph’s options at this point:

Option 1: At that time, around 10 BC, the leading religious authority in Israel was a rabbi named Hillel. Hillel was a liberal Pharisee, and he said that a man may divorce his wife for any reason. And at the time, 1st century BC Palestine, most people were illiterate, especially in the country. So the Scriptures were taught by rabbis and scribes, the literate class who could instruct the illiterate masses. Very likely Joseph, a carpenter from Nazareth, was illiterate, and received his knowledge of Scripture from the Pharisees. That’s one of the reasons you saw so much confusion when Jesus came and taught, because nobody had any idea what he was referencing. So Joseph can legally divorce his wife, according to the Pharisees, and he can either make this a full-blown media circus, or do it quietly.

Now, there was a second option. Option 2: Stone her. This was God’s law. Nowhere in the Bible does God command divorce, especially in cases of adultery. God takes it a step further than everyone and tells his people to kill an adulterer by stoning.

“If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” – Leviticus 20:10

Also Deuteronomy 22:13-22 (if evidence is found that she is not a virgin, she has to be stoned outside her father’s house)

And notice that this law doesn’t allow Joseph to simply ignore her sin and continue to live with her. Forgiveness is not an option. He must kill her.

So those are Joseph’s two options. One is man’s law, the other is God’s law. One you may do, the other you must do. Leave her or kill her.

And now we come back to the word “just.” We have to discern what it means, because now we have a whole pile of seeming contradictions. If he obeys God, he kills Mary and Jesus. If he obeys man, he disobeys God, who says he hates divorce, and he abandons Mary to a life of shame.

I see four possible definitions.

1. “Just” is obeying the law of the land. (This may seem strange to us, since we don’t view a law-abiding citizen in our secular culture as necessarily “righteous.” But the Jews did – in their society, obedience to authority was righteousness.) Obeying the law of the land means doing good things and not doing bad things, according to the law of the land. And the law of the land said, you must divorce an adulterous wife. There was no explanation for Mary’s pregnancy other than adultery. There was no historical precedent for a divine pregnancy, so there was no question that this was a case of adultery. At least that’s what the courts would all say. Therefore, his only just action would be to divorce her, because she was definitely adulterous. So the implication of “being a just man,” if we accept “just” as “acting rightly,” is that Joseph is going to obey the law of the land, and divorce Mary.

But Joseph was an Israelite, which was God’s chosen nation, and the true law of the land was the law of God, given through Moses. And the law of God said that she must die. So you can’t say that Joseph was acting rightly because he was breaking the law. This wasn’t a just action.

This also contradicts the fact that Matthew seems to imply that because he was just, he did not want to expose her to public disgrace. (I read that into the English, that the first clause causes the second causes the third – because he was A he did B, and therefore he did C. That’s opposed to “because he was A and B, independent things, he did C. I don’t know any Greek at all, so I can’t yet figure this out in the original, but I don’t think it changes the meaning too much.) Acting rightly would seem to necessitate a public disgracing – Mary has disgraced Joseph, and the only fair response would be to disgrace her publicly.

2. “Just” is obeying the law of the land, but tempering it with mercy. So Joseph would divorce his wife according to the law, but he was judging the situation himself and decided to have mercy on her, and this blend of justice and mercy made him just.

It sounds good, but it doesn’t work. Joseph, first of all, is in no position to be the judge of the situation – he can’t start making the law as he sees it. We follow God’s law and man’s law, inasmuch as it agrees with God’s law. Joseph isn’t above it. He can’t decide when to be merciful and when not to be. As well, blending justice and mercy in this situation doesn’t work, because “justice” in this situation means killing her, and “mercy” is letting her go free. The middle ground between two evils isn’t righteousness. He’s only found a third evil. Divorcing her quietly would have all the force of abandonment of a real divorce, and would still be disobeying God’s law to kill her.

3. “Just” is obeying God’s law. It would seem the most straightforward option: follow the letter and the spirit of the law of the true King of Israel, and stone the adulterous woman to purge the nation of sin. The law of God is explicit and even promises blessing when fulfilled.

The problem with this is she claimed to be carrying the son of God, the Messiah. If Joseph’s wrong about her, and she is telling the truth, then stoning her would be killing the Son of God. As Jesus says later in Matthew 26:24 – “But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” For initiating the death of Jesus, Judas was guaranteed hell. So he’s not “just” for this reason, but it is strange that after 1500 pages of Old Testament preaching righteousness and the upholding of God’s law, here’s a man called “just” – for breaking God’s law!

And at this point, consider what went on outside this story. Let’s bring in Luke. The angel appears to Mary in Luke 1 and tells her she’s going to conceive the Messiah, the Son of God. So she goes and tells Joseph, we assume (it’s not in the text). It just says here in Matthew that “she was found” to be with child. Maybe she waited to tell him until she started showing, maybe she planned for months how to tell him. I tend to think she couldn’t hold it in, that she had to tell him about this vision. And based on Joseph’s reaction, I don’t think he was pleased. In fact, I think he thought she was a liar. It’s the only explanation for the severity of his reaction – if he had simply thought she was crazy before she started to show, he would have stayed married to her until time proved her wrong. But then she started to show, and his reaction was to divorce her – he must have thought she had cheated on him and made up this story to cover it.

But he must have genuinely loved her as well, or he would have had her stoned, or at least made a public spectacle. And that love brings us to what is the fourth, and correct, definition of “just.”

4. “Just” is “justified.”

“Just” is diakaios in Greek, tsaddiyq in Hebrew (where Melchizadek gets his name – King of Righteousness). In English it’s translated “just” or “righteous,” it means the same thing. But this word has lost its true meaning in English because we don’t hold this theology as strongly as we used to.

The first time it’s used in the Bible is Genesis 6:9. “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation.” That word “blameless” helps clarify it a bit, but it raises some more problems. It doesn’t just mean he acts rightly and doesn’t act wrongly according to his understanding of the law, it means someone outside the law is holding him accountable for his actions. And if we back up one verse, we can see who that is. “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.”

And there it is! The story of Noah is not that God looked down and saw a world full of evil men and one righteous man; God looked down and saw that “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” But, and that’s a very strong “but” in verse 8, Noah found favor in the eyes of God. In other words, God gave him grace. By grace God continued to save Noah, physically from the flood, and spiritually when he died. That’s justification. God saves us from a life of sin by removing all blame for our sins, so that in his eyes we are completely blameless and perfect.

And look at what Matthew’s doing here with the genealogy, and then the narrative – it’s just like Genesis 5 and 6. I don’t think any Jew with a knowledge of scripture could miss this, and most boys by the time they were 13 had most, if not all of the Torah memorized. So Matthew would know this, and Joseph would know this, and all of the Jewish readers of this book would know it. They’d see a long geneaology, and then the name of a righteous man. And it only occurs when God is about to step into history and do something absolutely unprecedented, to change the course of the world forever by his intervention. It happens in Genesis 5 and 6, with Noah; it happens in 11 and 12 with Abraham; it happens in Matthew 1 with Joseph.

This is God stepping down into history, unaided, unexpected, to do something that’s going to alter history inextricably, forever. There is no doubt that God is sovereign over every bit of history and could do this any time he wants, without any warning or anyone’s help. Noah wasn’t being really good among a world full of evil people so that God could come down and bless him, he was just as wicked as they were! But God, in an inexplicable miracle, chooses Noah and gives him grace.

What was pre-Christ righteousness? Here begins a long confrontation in Matthew between true righteousness and self-righteousness. Four chapters from now, Jesus is going to lay down the rules for the kingdom, and set the standard of righteousness.  And he’s going to set the bar higher than anyone ever thought: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” In other words, “Be as good as God.” Impossible!

Let’s assume the best for Joseph. He’s been absolutely perfect up until this point. He’s never sinned: never talked back to his parents, never had an impure thought about a girl in all of puberty, never swore when he was angry, never harbored a grudge against anyone. He’s always studied hard at school, perfect grades. He’s always worked hard in his dad’s carpenter shop, never complained or slacked off. Perfect man to be the father of the Messiah, right?

And now he comes to this point. He’s found a godly girl, he loves her, he’s going to marry her. And… she’s pregnant.

She cheated on him! She committed adultery and broke the law of God, and now he’s implicated in it. The sin’s gotten on him, because now he’s got to make a choice with no sinless result! If he divorces her, he sins. If he stones her, he sins. If he doesn’t do anything, he sins!

Any way, Joseph sins! And that’s why Immanuel had to come. Verse 22 says that “all this,” meaning this whole divorce story, took place to fulfill the prophecy. God had to come with us – Joseph, here, is Israel – completely dead in his sins. Lost. No choice but one sin, or another. If he divorces her, he grieves God. If he stones her, he kills God!

His only way out is that the baby in her uterus is God himself. And that’s the shock of this miracle, that for Joseph to be justified before God, God himself needs to come down, to shrink to the size of a fetus and grow as a baby inside his wife.

And God does! He does it, and it’s exactly what Joseph needed, and exactly the opposite of what he deserved. Because he was not perfect. Mary came back distraught, exhilarated, confused… and Joseph thinks she’s a liar! He doesn’t believe her, at the very best thinks she’s crazy. So he intends to abandon her. The lesser of two evils is evil. He deserves for God to come down and kill him and send him to eternal hell for sinning against him.

But God comes down in mercy! He comes as Joseph’s son, who wanted to abandon his wife, calling her a liar and an adulterer. He comes as David’s son, who murdered and lied. He comes as Abraham’s son, who worshipped idols and laughed in God’s face when God first came and promised Jesus to him.

And God comes down as our Son, the only just man who can take the punishment for our sins on himself.

Justification is something only God can do. It’s the giving of life to a dead person. It’s the taking of sin onto himself, which is where Jesus is going even before birth. The Son is going to save his people.


~ by bradybush on August 30, 2009.

One Response to “Matthew 1:18-25”

  1. Addendum: I posted this in my younger and more impressionable years. The illiteracy of the average 1st century Palestinian Jew is a topic hotly debated, with the conservative scholars arguing strongly for above average literacy. I’m going to go with them. The preservation of the Old Testament is unparalleled in human society, and the ubiquity of the synagogues would have made widespread literacy possible.

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