19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream…
Joseph will not get much press this Christmas. He’ll be around of course, often as no more than a prop to make the Holy Family appear like a normal family. But Joseph is just there. We ask why.
Actually Joseph is a great hero of our faith, one of the greatest ingredients in the profile of the Messiah. Glance backwards to the first 18 verses. Matthew begins by tracing Jesus’ genealogy as the son of Abraham (v.2) and the son of David (v.6). He traces it right down to Jacob the father of Joseph. Then, very carefully, Matthew describes him – “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus is born, who is called Christ.”
While Luke gives the backstory of Mary, Matthew gives us Joseph’s story. It’s not pretty. “Now the birth” – literally the ‘generation’ – “of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” It’s talking about the origin or source, not the birth as such. He came from somewhere. Where? He did not come from a normal sexual union, rather from the action of the Holy Spirit. “Mary was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.” (v.18) Luke gives us more details.
The Holy Spirit comes onto the stage in Genesis 1:2, brooding over the unformed initial creation. The Holy Spirit brings order and breathes life into creatures, especially human beings. He is very active in the production of this particular Child –the Spirit of creativity, the Spirit of God.
Matthew focuses first on Joseph’s reaction to the news. Joseph doesn’t know, of course, that the Child was from the Holy Spirit. That bit of information is not accessible to him. He has just heard the news that his wife-to-be, his betrothed, is pregnant. Matthew captures Joseph’s agony.
It points to his integrity and his tenderness. He “considered these things.” He didn’t just rush to a conclusion. He looked at it from every possible angle. Only after that, he “resolved to divorce her quietly.” He believed it was the right thing to do. However, he resolved to do it quietly, because that would protect her and her place in society.
So we see his integrity. We see his tenderness. He had already made up his mind what to do when a divine representative appears, an angel, a messenger from the Lord. God speaks directly to this man Joseph.
It is very likely that she had not told Joseph anything about the angel who had appeared to her. Characteristically, she would have kept that knowledge to herself. In Luke 2:19 and 52, she kept knowledge of unusual events very close, in her heart. She did not talk easily about everything that happened to her. And just how likely would it have been for Joseph to believe her!
So the angel comes after Joseph has decided on his course of action. Only then does the angel intervene.
There’s a lesson in the order of the events as they unfold. One commentator applies Psalm 112:4 to this situation. “Light dawns in the darkness for the upright.” We are told that Joseph was an upright man. He didn’t know all the facts, but he had reflected on what he did know. He is proceeding along those lines. In light of the knowledge that he had, he is making the right choice. He’s doing it in the right spirit.
At the critical moment, when he has resolved to act, God intervenes and gives him the guidance that he needs. The angel does not say he is doing the wrong thing. The angel comes to give him information that he does not have – additional light.
This very often happens in our lives as well. We find ourselves perplexed about some decision. We find ourselves without any clarity. We do what Joseph did – we bring all that we know to the table. We use all of it to come to a conclusion and make a decision. Perhaps we are not completely happy with it, but all the facts, all the things we know, everything we have examined carefully, all our prayers seem to point one way. So we act on the light we have, even though it is uncomfortable.
God is not unhappy with that – acting on the light you have. We may still keep looking to Him for further light, if and when He sees fit. Many decisions of our lives must be made this way. Those decisions are not infallible. We cannot be absolutely sure. We make a choice with integrity to act in a certain way or to do a certain thing. We takes this job or that job or some other opportunity which lies before us. Or how should we deal with a pregnant teenage daughter?
It may be that God will intervene with His Word or His people to divert us from the decision made. But it is okay to be like Joseph and act on the light that you have. He was doing the right thing.
Then the angel appeared!
Liam Goligher is Senior Minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church. He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. Liam and his wife Christine have five adult children and ten grandchildren.