Advent Week 2 – Matthew 1:18-25
I mentioned this last week but it’s worth repeating. Every year at Christmas it can be a little tough to study the Christmas story passages, not because they aren’t important to us but because they’re so familiar to us. So I would encourage you and your group to study through these passages carefully, to sit with them, to look for new things that you’ve never noticed before, but to also enjoy the practice of repeating back this story to yourselves.
This week we’re looking at our second “do not fear,” passage, and this time the phrase is said to Joseph. Joseph was betrothed, meaning he was more than engaged but not quite married yet, to Mary, the mother of Jesus. And while they were betrothed it became more and more clear that Mary was pregnant. In the rosy Christmas story we’re familiar with, the one we probably learned as a child while watching claymation movies, we typically gloss over the scandal here. A man found out his fiancée was pregnant, and he knew good and well the baby wasn’t his. Imagine all of the emotions that must’ve poured through him, the shock and rage, the feelings of rejection and sorrow. Joseph and Mary were from a small town—their families probably knew each other, and Jospeh probably played with Mary’s brothers growing up, if she had any. This was undoubtedly a blow to Joseph, and he certainly could’ve made a scene about it.
But the text calls him a “just man…unwilling to put her to shame.”(1:19) Under the Mosaic law Mary could’ve been stoned for adultery; this didn’t happen very often in the first century, but it certainly could have. Less deadly but almost just as damaging, Joseph could’ve divorced her loudly, shaming her to his small town community and making sure she paid for her supposed imprudence. Joseph decided against violence and public shaming, but nevertheless planned to divorce her quietly (we see here the difference between engagement and betrothal; Joseph had to divorce Mary, he couldn’t just break off the engagement). And praise God he went about this slowly! Praise God he took his time “considering these things.”(1:20) Doing so obviously fit into God’s plan, but it provided Joseph with this opportunity to hear straight from an angel of the Lord.
And what did this angel tell him in a dream? “Do not fear.” Why was Joseph afraid to take Mary as his wife? Consider the message it would’ve sent to his small-town community; his family and friends would’ve assumed the child was his. Doing so would’ve taken Mary’s public shame and made it his own. What would he tell people, “God got her pregnant, not me,”? Would they believe it? But the angel said, “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived within her is from the Holy Spirit.”(1:20) The angel didn’t say, “Do not fear, I’ll let everyone know you didn’t knock up your fiancée.” He didn’t say, “Don’t worry, you’re gonna move to Egypt in a year or two and you can make a new life there.”(Matt.2:13) The angel doesn’t give Joseph hope by taking away what he was afraid of. Instead he just tells him who this child is, and further, that he will save his people from sin—Joseph is going to be the adoptive father of the Messiah! God didn’t take away his specific hardship, but he did put it in perspective, that perspective being right smack in the middle of cosmic redemption. Joseph would bear the reproach of his neighbors for a time, but soon after the angel’s visit he would’ve stood by those same neighbors in the synagogue and prayed a common prayer of Israel, that God would redeem his people.(Psa.25:22) And no one but Joseph and Mary would’ve known that God was about to do just that. They were in on the secret, and that is a beautiful gift from the Lord.
One last thing is worth pointing out. In the dream Jospeh is told to name Mary’s son Jesus, Yeshua in Hebrew, meaning “Yahweh saves.” This was one of the more common boy names in the first century, kind of like “James” or “Taylor” today, so it doesn’t feel super prophetic; it’s a far cry from when God told Hosea to name his son, “Not My People.”(Hos.1:9) But this just takes the theme of Jesus’ birth one step forward. Here we have a miraculous truth, “God saves.” In particular, God saves those who are not deserving, who have done nothing to warrant salvation. God saves sinners.(1 Tim. 1:15) This is a beautiful reality. And yet it comes in a really unassuming package, like giving your son the same name as five other boys in his class. But what else is the incarnation, God of the Universe become man, if it’s not miraculous truth squeezed down into the commonplace? That can give us a profound hope, considering the majority of our life tends to feel mundane; even we feel mundane. And yet God does amazing things with mundane things, he loves mundane things, and he does amazing things for mundane creatures like us.
Questions for Discussion
• Would someone read Matthew 1:18–25 for us?
• What stands out to you from this passage?
• Why do you think Joseph was afraid to take Mary as his wife?
• What was so important about this angel’s message?
• What do you think it was like for Joseph to receive this news?
• How does this passage help us understand the significance of Jesus’ birth?
• How can this passage help us celebrate Christmas this year?