When Good News sounds like bad news (Joseph–Matthew 1)

“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)


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.



Mary and Joseph’s tough assignment – Luke 1, Matthew 1

About a half of a lifetime ago I was leading a music group to Scotland on a summer missions trip. I was being hosted by a lovely Scottish family, who in the course of conversation told me that they were still in a bit of recovery from having lost a five-year-old son in the past year to some disease that took him rather suddenly. Even in the midst of their grief, they modelled the joy of faith and life in Christ.

It was quite remarkable, and my understanding of their faith was informed by what the father told me of his experience. He said, “This is the thought that has given me the most comfort: If God had come to me six years ago and said, ‘I have this precious child that I need someone to give a home for five years, but then I’m going to take him back with me; would you be willing to do that?’”

And the father, with moisture gathering in his eyes, looked at me and said, “I would have certainly said to God in answer to that question, ‘Absolutely, YES, we will take that assignment.’  So why should I be angry about my loss when I have so much to be thankful for about the great blessing we received?”

That would be a tough assignment. It is difficult to give your heart away to uncertain situations. And that is what, for example, makes foster home parents such fantastic people in my book! But honestly, most of life is quite uncertain.

God sometimes gives people some tough assignments to carry out in the context of a difficult, sinful and fallen world. Mary and Joseph could justly say that God gave them a pretty tough job. Along with the issue of the social stigmatization of the pregnancy, there was the challenge of raising and having this unique child in one’s home. We see a taste of that when Jesus is accidentally “left behind” in Jerusalem, hanging out in the Temple playing Bible trivia with the religious leadership.

Beyond that we see that his brothers were essentially finding Jesus to be a bit “out there” in the early days of his ministry. It appears they sort of came to try to talk him down off the edge, get a more balanced view of self, and to come back home.

And finally, at the cross we see Mary … apparently Joseph had died somewhere along the way … watching her son on a Roman cross. Talk about a brutal assignment!

But both took the assignment from God … immediately … no doubting or delaying.

From Luke chapter 1 is the account of Mary hearing from God …

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month.37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Mary’s Song

46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.

There is no waffling or but, but, butting … she just said, “Yep, bring it to me, I’ll do it. I am blessed among all people to be given this assignment.”

And then in Matthew chapter 1, we see the portion of the story about Joseph …

18 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. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and 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. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

So Joseph woke up and went and put into action what God wanted done. There was no doubting or second-guessing. The assignment was tough, but the rewards of obedience are better and higher.

There is an eternally timeless truth in that statement

Who’s your daddy? (Matthew 1; Luke 3)


Money may not grow on trees, but there’s big business to be had in studying people’s genealogies—that is, their family lineage.  Search terms for “ancestry” and “genealogy” have risen to the second most searched-for category on the internet—second only (sadly) to pornography.  In 2012, a European private equity offered the popular Ancestry.com 1.6 billion dollars for control of the company (the offer was declined, by the way).

Why the popularity?  Our ancestry offers us a means of answering the age-old question: “Who am I?”  Our identity might be found in our ancestry.  In an article on Salon.com, actor Don Cheadle is reported as saying: “You start feeling more grounded when you can reach back and go … ‘This is who I am all the way back.’”

This is who I am all the way back.  Imagine knowing your roots this intimately.  Matthew and Luke set out to write biographies of Jesus, they included Jesus’ family tree, revealing just who Jesus was “all the way back.”


Matthew and Luke both include genealogies of Jesus.  Perhaps it would be helpful to see them side by side.  What do you notice that’s similar?  What do you notice that’s different?


Matthew 1:1-17 Luke 3:23-38
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.


2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, 4 and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of David the king.


And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7 and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, 8 and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9 and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.


12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel,and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud,15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.


17 So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.


23 Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, 24 the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph, 25 the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Naggai, 26 the son of Maath, the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein, the son of Josech, the son of Joda, 27 the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri, 28 the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmadam, the son of Er, 29 the son of Joshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi,30 the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim, 31 the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, 32 the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Sala, the son of Nahshon, 33 the son of Amminadab, the son of Admin, the son of Arni, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, 34 the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, 35 the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, 36 the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, 37 the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalaleel, the son of Cainan,38 the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.


You might notice that Luke goes back waaaay further than Matthew.  Matthew goes back only to Abraham.  Luke goes back all the way to Adam.  Why?  Well, Matthew is trying to connect Jesus to both David—showing that Jesus is Israel’s true king—and Abraham—showing that Jesus is of true Jewish descent.  Luke is trying to connect Jesus not just to the Jews, but to the entire human race—something that would have been important, as Luke wrote both Luke and Acts during a time when people worried about the inclusion of Gentiles (non-Jews) in the Church.

But, you might be thinking, why don’t Matthew and Luke match up?  The genealogies given here look quite different.  Various suggestions have been made.  In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther suggested that Matthew gave Joseph’s genealogy, while Luke records Mary’s.  Unfortunately, evidence for this is sparse—limited only to arguments of Greek grammar (!).  In his commentary on Matthew, Craig Keener borrows from an ancient writer and suggests that Matthew was primarily focused on Jesus’ royal lineage, while Luke focused on Jesus’ biological history.  Since Jews did not keep accurate records of their genealogies (which helps explain why many didn’t know Jesus was of royal lineage), it’s probable that both Matthew and Luke are recording history only selectively.  Oh, you say, so the Bible contains errors?  No; it simply means that ancient biographies weren’t constructed with the level of chronological detail that we might expect from modern writers.  Additionally, the “gospel” was an unprecedented genre of literature.  They were meant to be historical, sure—but they were ultimately intended to invoke faith on the part of the reader.  Therefore all gospel writers recorded only the factual details necessary to win audiences with the gospel.


Of course, if you have a background in church, you may notice a few colorful characters in Jesus’ family tree.  David and “the wife of Uriah” (adultery and murder?), Tamar (who seduced her father-in-law while dressed as a prostitute), Rahab the prostitute…these aren’t the characters you might expect to find in the story about Jesus.  It’s all the more shocking when you realize that ancient peoples believed in what we might call “collective guilt.”  If a person is guilty, so is their entire community.  Yes; one bad apple really does spoil the whole bunch.

Today, while we emphasize individual responsibility, we still tend to think of guilt as contagious.  For instance, in a study conducted by Loyola University (if you listened to last Sunday’s sermon, I misspoke of the study’s origins), participants reported feeling significantly more guilty knowing that the seats they occupied were once occupied by those guilty of misconduct.  According to the report in men’s health, “whether it’s a chair, handshake, or lucky shirt, you’d be wise to seek out people and objects you want to emulate—and steer clear of stuff stained by failure, the study implies.”

But through Jesus, the righteousness of the One is enough to redeem the sinfulness of the many.  Are there some skeletons in your closet?  Do you have a past full of darkness, full of shame?  Jesus can redeem whole generations of brokenness with his lifetime of obedience, and the exchange he offers—my sin for his righteousness.   It is then that you and I might stand faultless before the throne, clothed in righteousness alone.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at a few characters from Jesus’ family tree, and seeing the various ways that the gospel can transform lives of brokenness into agents for His Kingdom.