with Tony W. Cartledge
Teachers: Scroll down for teaching materials.
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” – Matthew 1:20b-21
The Invisible Man
Today’s text is a story we have heard many times over, but without getting to know the main character very well. Joseph is the quintessential background player. He’s the guy leading the donkey on Christmas cards, or the tall kid in the striped bathrobe who gets no lines in the Christmas pageant.
Is there more we can learn about this man who played such an important role in Jesus’ early life, but who disappeared from the story before Jesus preached his first sermon?
Joseph’s dilemma(vv. 18-19)
Mixed families are far more common now than in the first century. A surprising number of children in America – just over 40 percent in 2014 – are born to unmarried mothers. Fewer than half (46 percent) of U.S. children live in “traditional families” with two parents who are both heterosexual and in their first marriage. Children living in “yours, mine, and ours” families may have multiple father figures, while others have no father in sight.
Life was different in the first century, at least within Jewish culture. Their, marriage was the norm, divorce was rare, and single mothers were usually widows. This is not to suggest that the situation was ideal: marriages were typically arranged by parents, and children were often married by their mid-teens. In our time, when adolescence sometimes stretches into the late 20s, this may sound strange – but that was the world into which Jesus was born.
Stories in both Matthew and Luke insist that God brought about Mary’s miraculous pregnancy while she remained a virgin. Joseph, then, was not Jesus’ biological father – but he was his legal father.
This is why, perhaps, Matthew traces Jesus’ bloodline through Joseph, even though Jesus had none of his blood. The genealogy (1:1-17) is clearly stylized and somewhat artificial. It begins with Abraham and goes forward to Jesus, marking 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 more from David to the exile, and another 14 from the exile to the birth of Jesus. On close examination, the numbers don’t all add up and several kings known to be in the line are omitted, but Matthew’s purpose is clear.
Matthew’s intent was to identify Jesus as both a son of Abraham and “son of David” (1:1), a title that Matthew frequently uses. God had promised David that his descendants would rule after him (2 Sam. 7:12). After the kingdom of Judah was destroyed and Davidic scions no longer ruled in Jerusalem, the Jews began to interpret the passage as a prophecy of a Davidic descendant who would arise as a Messiah and set up a new kingdom.
But let’s return our attention to Joseph, the honest carpenter who was engaged to Mary when “she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (v. 18). Can you imagine how Joseph must have felt when Mary broke the news to him? Joseph did not have two millennia of Christian tradition to dull his senses to the shocking news that his betrothed wife-to-be was pregnant. Did he take the news calmly, or go to his shop and start breaking things? We may guess that Mary told him about her earlier encounter with an angel and the promise that she would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit, but would Joseph have believed such a story?
Maybe not. But still, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,” Joseph resolved to end their arranged marriage quietly (v. 19). Early Jewish writings suggest that parents often arranged marriages while their children were still in their early to mid teens. A ceremony before witnesses marked the betrothal as a binding agreement, with the wedding usually occurring about a year later.
During the betrothal period, the two were expected to get to know each other, but not allowed to have sexual relations. Even though a wedding had not taken place, the terminology of “husband” and “wife” could be used, as in v. 19. To break the engagement, one had to initiate formal divorce proceedings. Though Joseph planned to keep the divorce low-key, his desire to terminate the relationship suggests that he was not fully on board with Mary’s explanation of the pregnancy. Would you have been?
The angel’s revelation(vv. 20-21)
Amid Joseph’s questioning turmoil, “an angel of the Lord” appeared to him in a dream, saying “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (v. 20).
We note with some surprise that the angel addressed Joseph as “son of David,” the only time in Matthew’s gospel where that refers to anyone other than Jesus. This continues to serve Matthew’s purpose of identifying Jesus as a descendant of David.
The angel’s speech drips with theological significance. It affirms that Jesus’ conception is “from the Holy Spirit.” Unlike Greek, Roman, or ancient Near Eastern myths in which lustful gods have sexual relations with human women or men, Matthew’s account emphasizes God’s creative power to generate a new life within Mary by spiritual means.
Expectant couples in our day typically look forward to the first sonogram, hoping to learn the gender of their child months before its actual birth. Joseph did not gain that information from a gynecologist, but from the angel, who said “she will bear a son.” More significant than gender, however, is the name to be given: “you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21).
The English name “Jesus” transliterates the Greek Iēsous, which is derived from the Hebrew name Yehōshua or the Aramaic Yeshua, typically translated as “Joshua.” In the ancient world, names had greater significance than in modern times, and generally indicated parental hopes for the character and destiny of the child. The Hebrew version of Jesus’ name means “Yahweh is salvation.”
The Jews of Jesus’ day had long expected a messianic son of David to arise and deliver them from the power of the Romans who occupied the land, restoring Israel to its former glory as an independent nation. The angel’s words, then, come as a surprise: the Messiah’s purpose would be to “save his people from their sins” – not from Roman rule, but from their own human failures.
When Jesus began his ministry, he demonstrated such miraculous powers that many believed he could have led Israel to defeat the Romans, and activists were deeply disappointed to learn that Jesus was more concerned with sin than with soldiers. Yet, his mission to save people from their sins was far more profound and far-reaching than any military victory. While “his people” may initially lead us to think of the Jews only, and Jesus spoke of his ministry as beginning with the Jews, the gospel makes it clear that Jesus’ ministry was to all nations (Matt. 28:19).
Matthew’s explanation(vv. 22-25)
The angel’s speech concludes with v. 21, so we understand vv. 22-25 as Matthew’s commentary: he believed Jesus’ birth fulfilled the prophecy of Isa. 7:14, which he quotes from the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The text he quotes comes from a particular historical context in the neighborhood of 735 BCE. King Ahaz of Judah, who had come to the throne at age 20, was being pressured to join an alliance with Syria and Egypt in an effort to hold off military advances of the Assyrian king Tiglath Pileser. Isaiah cautioned Ahaz to stay out of the coalition and trust Yahweh to defend the nation.
As a sign of God’s faithfulness, Isaiah announced: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” The obvious purpose of the sign was to assure Ahaz of God’s present power by predicting that a young woman – probably Ahaz’s wife or possibly Isaiah’s – would give birth to a son and call him “Immanuel,” a Hebrew phrase meaning “God with us.”
Isaiah described the mother-to-be as an ‘almah, a Hebrew word used to describe a young woman of marriageable age. The word does not necessarily imply virginity, but the Septuagint translators used the Greek word parthenos, which specifically means “virgin.”
The child Isaiah mentioned would have been born shortly afterward, but later Jewish interpreters began to read this verse as a messianic prediction of a child who would bring God’s delivering power to bear in Israel’s behalf. The translation “virgin” rather than “young woman” added to the belief that the coming child would be born under miraculous circumstances.
Joseph was sufficiently impressed by the dream to do as the angel had instructed. He did not divorce Mary, but went through with the formal marriage ceremony, taking her as his wife (v. 24). Even though they lived together, Matthew is careful to point out that they had no sexual relations until after Mary had given birth to a son, whom they obediently named Jesus (v. 25).
We could profit from remembering that Joseph, who lived mainly in the background, was a crucial member of the Christmas cast: his obedience protected Mary’s reputation and gave Jesus a stable home. May we express gratitude to Joseph, the invisible but essential man. NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for December 18, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Matthew 1:18-25
There are times that our youth feel invisible. They don’t feel like the fit in to this group or that one. They try and fit in and still are excluded. They try and fit in somewhere else and still aren’t made to feel part of the group. You can see a change in their body language. You can see it in their posts to social media. They feel alone. The feel invisible. To help them feel visible again, speak up about the things that you see in them and what they are doing. Encourage others to do the same as well. The more that they hear it from others, they will start to see it in themselves again. The feeling of isolation is real. Make sure you recognize your youth daily.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“The Invisible Boy” by Turdy Ludwig posted by Licking County DD via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Matthew 1:18-25