“I’m not afraid of anything in this world, there’s nothing you can throw at me that I haven’t already heard.” When Bono sang this song back in 2001 with the rock band U2, he was speaking ironically. Though the song was upbeat, “Stuck in a Moment” was an anthem written amidst tremendous pain. There are occasions, in life, when our fearlessness is revealed to be mere illusion—occasions when our confidence is shaken all the way to the core.
The birth of Jesus turned everyone’s world upside down. And the first people to have their lives shaken by the Savior’s arrival? A young couple, who had been making plans for their upcoming wedding, when God throws something that they’d not quite heard before…
Matthew’s biography of Jesus takes great pains to connect the life of Jesus to the story of the Old Testament. His life would be a continuation—nay, a fulfillment—of Israel’s history and hopes. In Matthew 1:1-17, we find a genealogical record that establishes Jesus as being in the line of David. This alone would establish Jesus as the legal heir to David’s throne. But this wasn’t enough—or, at least, this wasn’t all that God intended. For a king could rule his subjects but never save them from the captivity of sin. Only a Savior could do that, and a Savior’s arrival would transcend the boundaries of nature:
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:18-19)
The first and most obvious clue that Jesus’ birth was a supernatural event was that he was born of a virgin. We’re told that Mary and Joseph were engaged (“betrothed,” in the older way of saying it), but had remained faithful to God’s plan for a physical relationship. This meant that Joseph knew that—unless he never paid attention in health class—if Mary was pregnant, he wasn’t the daddy.
Let’s not gloss over this. It means that one of the first reactions to Jesus’ arrival was one of fear, anger, and betrayal. We might imagine that if Mary had tried to explain the situation, he’d have found it a ludicrous way to conceal her infidelity. In the absence of trust, the “good news” of the gospel first sounds like bad news, and for Joseph, that meant limited options.
He could proceed with the marriage, but being a “righteous” man he may have considered this shameful under the commands of God. He could publicly expose his fiancée as unfaithful. At minimum she’d endure the shame of a public divorce (cf. Deuteronomy 22:23-24), but this would mean that Mary would risk being stoned. His only option was to divorce her quietly. All he’d need to do is hand her a written certificate with two witnesses present (cf. Numbers 5:11-31).
But before his decision is final, God intervenes:
20 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). (Matthew 1:18-23)
THE MEANING OF “FULFILLED”
But is this really a fulfillment of prophecy? Sometimes the educated elite tend to look askance at the more radical of the Bible’s traditions. In this instance, it’s become popular to point out that Isaiah—the text that Matthew quotes as being fulfilled—doesn’t actually refer to a virgin at all.
Keep in mind that Matthew is writing in Greek. Isaiah wrote in Hebrew. The Greek word parthenos means virgin in the literal sense, but Isaiah uses the Hebrew term ‘alma, which can simply refer to any young woman of marriageable age. While the term often refers to literal virgins (cf. Genesis 24:43), the Hebrew language has a different word to refer to literal virgins—bethula. So Isaiah never explicitly says that a literal virgin shall bear a son—only that a young woman will conceive and bear a child.
Confused yet? What’s going on, here? Prophecy isn’t always fulfilled just once. So it’s perfectly likely that Isaiah is referring to a young woman in his day that conceives and bears a child. But the prophecy is now being fulfilled in Jesus’ day through an actual virgin. The emphasis here isn’t on the prophecy itself, but on the way it’s fulfilled. It’s almost like Matthew is telling us: “You heard Isaiah say that a young woman shall conceive, but now—get this—not just a young woman, but an actual virgin.” This is also why Matthew tells us that this doesn’t fulfill the prophecy directly, it fulfills what God said through the prophet. Isaiah’s initial prophecy is a small portion of God’s unfolding plan—a prophecy that takes on greater meaning in the lives of Mary and Joseph.
Joseph’s angelic visitation left him with a critical choice to make: do I trust God with this, or not? Personally, I can imagine being tempted to dismiss the dream as just that: only a dream—“a bit of undigested beef,” to quote the Dickens classic. Instead, Joseph demonstrates devotion. And trust.
24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:24-25)
Many of us have a similar choice to make. Sure, maybe not a choice of this scale, but a choice nonetheless. Do we trust God with our lives? Do we trust God even when the path ahead appears unclear, or even socially disastrous?
If we’re honest, we tend to trust God with only portions of our lives. Think about it: aren’t there times when you say, “I trust God when ______________” or “I’ll trust God if he _______________.” What we fill in the blanks with are our real saviors, we just don’t admit it. I’ll trust God if he helps me if I return to school. I trust God when my choices seem easy. But God calls us to trust him even when it doesn’t immediately seem clear. And, without trust, the “good news” of the gospel sounds, to our ears, like bad news, and like Joseph we feel our options are limited.
But the wonderful good news of the gospel is that God engenders faith and trust even when we cannot find it within ourselves. Joseph teaches us that we are to trust God for no reason other than he is God—and I am not. Put in that perspective, trust becomes a clear choice, albeit a difficult one. If you struggle with trusting God, the answer will never be found through self-examination. On the contrary, if we struggle with trusting God, then we find the solution in him, in a God who empowers our faith and illuminates our paths when the way seems dark.
For Joseph and Mary did more than just give Israel her king; God used them to bring forth salvation itself.