Fear not, Joseph!

Fear not, Joseph!

If you asked a crowd, how many of them often care a lot about what other people think of them, most hands would go up, at least if they were honest. The reality is, that at one level or another, all of us are concerned with what others think. Do you like the car I drive? Do you like the clothes I wear? Do you like my hairstyle, my makeup? Do you think I’m funny? Do I fit in? Do you like my Instagram selfie? How many Facebook likes did I get? We become easily obsessed with what other people think about us.

And in Matthew 1:18-25, we’re going to watch Joseph battle with the opinions of people, when he has to decide between doing what is easy and doing what is right, between doing what people would want him to do and doing what God wants him to do.

Matthew 1:18–25 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.

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).

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.

Joseph’s Battle

Who was Joseph? Let me list for you a few things we know about Joseph from the New Testament:

  • His father’s name was Jacob.
  • He lived in Nazareth up in Galilee.
  • His family’s ancestral hometown was Bethlehem down in Judea.
  • He was from the royal line of David.
  • He was a carpenter by trade.
  • He was a poor man.
  • He was a righteous man, a just man.

We don’t know how old Joseph was for sure, but most commentators agree that he was a young man at this time, probably 17 or 18.

Interestingly, Joseph never speaks in the Bible, and later, during the 3-year ministry of Jesus, we never see him again. Many people think that Joseph died sometime while Jesus was growing up.

The text tells us that Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, or promised to him. In first century Israel, betrothal was as firm a covenant as marriage itself. Even though it was not technically a marriage until the bridegroom took the bride to his home and consummated the marriage, the couple were called husband and wife, and a betrothed woman was considered a widow if her husband died.

Put yourself in Joseph’s place. He and Mary were in the middle of their wedding planning. Think of all the dreams that he and Mary had dreamt together, all the plans they had made, thankfulness in Joseph’s heart for the wonderful, godly wife God had given him, all of the emotion . . . and then suddenly this! Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant. Joseph only knows one thing for sure—he’s not the father. What could he conclude except that Mary had been unfaithful?

Unfaithfulness on Mary’s part would have so betrayed their love for one another. Unfaithfulness on Mary’s part would have been so out of character for this godly woman whom Joseph had come to know and love.

What emotions might he have been experiencing at a time like this? Anger? Confusion? Frustration? Embarrassment? Shame? Rage? Disappointment?

What did he say to her? What did she say to him? Did she tell him about the angel Gabriel appearing to her? If she did, can you blame him for not believing her? “Right, Mary. Your pregnant, and the Holy Spirit did it. How long did it take you to come up with that story?”

We don’t know all that transpired as Joseph decided what to do. I would imagine that this was one of the most difficult decisions in his life up to this point.

Their friends and relatives knew they were to be married. Then Mary turns up pregnant. If Joseph says the baby is his, then he admits he and Mary have been sinful and broken God’s law, plus he’d be lying. If Joseph admits it’s not his baby, then Mary is considered a woman of ill repute. He could publicly expose her as an adulteress. He had every legal right to do so. And according to the law, she could have been stoned to death.

Or, Joseph could divorce her privately without giving all the reasons and simply end their marriage. Verse 19 tells us that’s exactly what he decided to do: “Her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”

We get a glimpse of Joseph’s character here—his faithfulness and love for Mary. In the midst of his hurt and confusion and pain and plans gone awry, he showed tremendous love for Mary; he did not want to shame her, even though he could have, but instead was going to divorce her quietly and just move on.

But just as Joseph had made that decision, something unexpected happened.

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.”

And then Matthew adds this:

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).

This is now our third angelic appearance in the birth account of Jesus. The first two were when Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and then to Mary. This may have been Gabriel as well, but he is not named. And this time is different because it says that the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. Joseph probably fell asleep that night with a lot on his mind, not relishing the task that lay ahead of him in divorcing Mary.

The first thing the angel said is “Joseph, son of David, fear not!” “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife.” Joseph had been afraid to take Mary as his wife. Why? I’m sure part of his fear was what people would think if he went ahead and married a woman who got pregnant out of wedlock. What would happen to his reputation in Nazareth? What would his family think? What would the teachers down at the synagogue say?

Joseph undoubtedly loved Mary, but he could not bring himself to continue the relationship given the circumstances. Had it not been for God’s intervention in a dream, Joseph would have divorced Mary.

But Joseph learned that things are not always as they seem. Joseph saw what seemed to be obvious unfaithfulness, but the angel was there to assure Joseph that Mary had been completely faithful. She had not betrayed her love for Joseph. What was growing inside of her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Mary would give birth to a Son—not a son conceived in sin, but a Son who would save his people from their sins.

Mary gave birth to a Son—not a son conceived in sin, but a Son who would save his people from their sins. Click To Tweet

Pretend that you’re Joseph. You wake up from this dream in which you saw an angel tell you to believe Mary and to take her as your wife because she’s carrying the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior. What do you do? What did Joseph do?

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.

Joseph didn’t argue; he didn’t rationalize. No one would believe their story. But Joseph didn’t worry about what the neighbors would say. He submitted to the angel’s message just as Mary had done some weeks earlier.

Let me ask you, how do you respond when confronted with circumstances that change your plans, when things don’t go your way, when God asks you to do something hard? Do you get angry or complain? Do you rant and rage? Do you feel sorry for yourself?

Joseph was willing to make a very difficult decision, because he knew it was what God wanted of him, even if it meant public shame or losing friends. God often asks us to make difficult decisions that might result in our embarrassment or our humiliation.

As I mentioned above, to some degree or another, all of us want to please people, to be liked, to be well thought of. But often that desire is at odds with what God wants us to do. And we are faced with a decision.

And what you’ll learn, if you haven’t already learned it, is that pleasing God often means disappointing people. Or to put it another way: obeying God will often make you unpopular with people.

Obeying God will often make you unpopular with people. Click To Tweet

If it hasn’t happened yet, there’s going to come a time when you’re reading God’s Word, and God’s Word tells you to do something that is culturally unpopular or personally very difficult. And you are faced with a choice—how will you respond?

Let me give you a few examples. You may decide to make changes in how you handle your finances. You become convicted to order your finances according to biblical priorities instead of cultural priorities. What might that look like? You start tithing to your church first, instead of giving what’s left over after you’ve paid your cable bill, your cell phone bill, your Starbucks bill . . .

Or maybe you downgrade your 200-channel cable plan so you have more money to support a missionary. Or maybe you don’t upgrade to that new iPhone 10 so you can buy some winter clothes for those in need in your community. Some people in our culture might think those decisions are radical.

Or let’s say your friends are going to Florida in January to enjoy some sunshine and invite you to come, but you tell them, “I’m not going with you, because I feel called to go and serve some disabled kids in Nicaragua.” They might think that’s a stupid way to spend your money.

Or you may be in a place where you actually decide to leave a high-paying job to take a lower-paying job, because you felt like God was calling you to do something with your life that would make a real difference in the lives of others, even though the pay isn’t as high. And your co-workers are like, “Why would you do that? You have a secure job. You’re only 10 years from retirement. That’s a stupid move!” Or, maybe you stay in that difficult, high-paying job so you can give more toward missions and your church.

Maybe you’re in your retirement years, and rather than focusing your time, energy, and money on traveling, playing, and enjoying your golden years, instead you decide to spend your time, energy, and money on serving others and giving sacrificially and generously for the furtherance of the gospel. And your retired friends are like, “What are you doing? You earned it. You deserve to spend it on yourself. I mean, you could buy a boat, travel the world, play golf, and all the rest.” And you say, “Because this is what God is calling me to do.” And they might think you’re a little off your rocker.

Listen, if you’re not willing to be criticized for your obedience to God, then you’re not ready to be used by God. Obedience is never easy, but it’s oh so worth it.

If you’re not willing to be criticized for your obedience to God, then you’re not ready to be used by God. Click To Tweet

What if Mary and Joseph had been more concerned with pleasing men and living for their approval than living for the glory of God? What might it look like in your life if you stop living for the praise of others and instead live for the praise of God?

Jesus the Savior

I want us now to look at two phrases in verses 21 to 23. The angel said to Joseph:

21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

And then the Gospel writer, Matthew, adds this:

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).

Two names are given for this child who was conceived by the Holy Spirit—Jesus and Immanuel. One speaks of his mission, and the other of his nature.

First of all, let’s consider the name Jesus. Verse 21 says “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” Why? Because “he will save his people from their sins.”

The name Jesus is a form of the Hebrew word Yeshua. It is the Old Testament name we know as Joshua. It means “Yahweh saves,” or “God will save.”

Jesus came to save. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas. Whatever else Christmas is to us—family, friends, peace on earth, giving and receiving of presents—it should be, and must be, all about Jesus, the child who was born to save his people from their sins.

What does it mean to be saved from sins? Well, you only have to be saved from something that’s going to harm you or kill you. Right? A person is saved from a fire, or saved from drowning, or saved from a wild animal. So, how are our sins something we need to be saved from, and how will Jesus, this child, do it? The answer brings us to the heart of the gospel message.

God is holy. He created mankind to be in relationship with him. In the beginning, he created man good and upright, and man walked in perfect fellowship with God.

But then the first people—Adam and Eve—disobeyed God and rebelled against him and his rule. As a result, they were cast out of God’s presence, and God passed sentence on them. He said that as a result of their sin—their disobedience, their rebellion—they would surely die, both physically and spiritually.

The rest of Scripture (and history) tells the story of man’s rebellion, of how all of us have walked in Adam’s disobedience. Scripture says that none of us is righteous; we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

As a result, we are all under the sentence of death. Yes, we will all die physically, but much worse is the reality that in our natural state, separated from God, we will all die spiritually. Because we are all sinners, we are all doomed to spend eternity away from the presence of the Lord, in eternal torment in a place called hell.

So, when the angel says that Jesus will save his people from their sins, he has all that in mind. A result of this child being born will be the salvation of millions of people. They will be saved from the ultimate consequence of their sins, eternal separation from God.

But just how does this child born 2,000 years ago provide salvation from the punishment of our sins? I mean, people are born and die all the time—what’s so special about Jesus’ birth, life, and death?

To a first-century Israelity, like Joseph, this makes so much more sense than it does to a 20th Century American. To help us understand, we’ll need to delve a bit into the Old Testament.

After God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt, he gave them the blessing of the tabernacle, which served as God’s dwelling place among the Israelites and as a means of grace for his people. God chose the tabernacle and the system of sacrifices as the means for his people to live by grace and forgiveness so that his presence would remain in their midst because the people would continually fail to live up to his standard of holiness.

Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, was and is the holiest and most solemn day of the year for a practicing Jew; it is a day of contrition, confession, and repentance. Annually, since the time of Moses, the Jews have celebrated this one day in which a great offering was given for all the sins of all the people through the previous year. Every year, Yom Kippur pictures man’s need for redemption through a substitutionary sacrifice.

The Day of Atonement was the climax of this Old Testament sacrificial system; it displayed the tremendous holiness of God and the utter depth of humanity’s sin. Everything about this day indicated that it was a day of utmost importance.

Before he could enter the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle, the high priest had to bathe himself, don a special white garment, and then offer a bull as a sacrifice for himself and his family. All these rituals reinforced the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man and were to ensure that the high priest was prepared and qualified to minister on behalf of the people.

In Leviticus 16, which gives the details of the Day of Atonement, four different words are used to describe the sin of God’s people: impurities, transgressions, iniquities, and sins.

“Impurities” refers to the pollution of our sin. “Transgressions” speaks to the willful rebellion of man against God. “Iniquities” expresses our ethical wrongdoing as we pervert that which is intended for good for our own selfish purposes. And “sins” is the catchall word for any attitude or action, whether small or great, unintentional or intentional, commission or omission, that is offensive to a holy God.

These words not only show the serious nature of our problem, but they also show the greatness of the grace of God’s provision. Our pollution needs cleansing; our rebellion needs reconciliation; our wickedness needs pardoning; our utter failure needs forgiveness.

On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would select two goats—two unblemished sacrificial animals. One was killed, slaughtered, and its blood was splattered all over the altar as a sacrifice for the sin of the people, as a symbol of the need for death to pay for sin.

In God’s economy, blood is the price to be paid for cleansing and forgiveness. Thus, the slaughtered goat died so that the people could live. It was a life given in exchange for another. The animal was the sacrifice that satisfied God’s just wrath against sin. Humanity deserved to die a violent death, but the animal was a substitute.

After the first goat was slaughtered, the high priest laid both hands on the head of the second one. He confessed all the sins of Israel over it, and then this scapegoat was cast out of the camp and into the wilderness, so far away that it could never find its way back or be seen again, symbolizing the removal of the people’s sin.

But the goat that was slaughtered couldn’t really pay the price. Animals couldn’t pay the price for humanity’s rebellion and sin; they could only symbolize the one who can. And the scapegoat that carried sin out into the wilderness couldn’t really carry away sin; it could only symbolize the one who can.

God ordained this simple and graphic ceremony to point forward to Christ. He would be the one to be our substitute, slaughtered for the forgiveness of sin. He would be the one upon whom all our sins were laid in order to take them away to be remembered no more.

The Day of Atonement was a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ, the one who would save his people from their sins. The high priest, the slaughtered goat, and the scapegoat were all meant to point to the ultimate Day of Atonement when Jesus Christ would offer himself as the final sacrifice for us on the cross and secure our salvation. As the author of Hebrews put it:

Hebrews 9:11–12 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.

At Christmas we celebrate a Child born to take away sin, to pay the price for our sin so we don’t have to pay it.

At Christmas we celebrate a Child born to take away sin, to pay the price for our sin so we don’t have to pay it. Click To Tweet

Those who have trusted Christ will never pay the ultimate penalty for their sin. It’s been paid—in full. We will never spend a moment in hell. We will go from this life into God’s presence because of Mary’s child who came to save his people from their sins.

Immanuel—God With Us

And then the second title given to Mary’s child comes in verse 23. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).

The name Jesus tells us about this child’s mission, and the name Immanuel tells us about his nature.

Immanuel means God with us; it means God lives among his people. Jesus was no ordinary child. Yes, he was the physical son of Mary and had a human nature, but he is also the Son of God—begotten by the Holy Spirit, fully divine. Jesus is the perfect God-man.

Jesus was truly God with us. He experienced everything that we experience. He was tempted in every way that we are tempted. He condescended from his eternal glory to enter our fallen world so that we would know the love of God.

And Jesus, by his perfect life and sacrificial death, has given us unhindered access to God. At Jesus’ death, the curtain of the temple, which represented the separation of a holy God from his sinful people, was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now, every believer in Chris has direct and unhindered access to the presence of God.

What a privilege we have! Jesus gives us intimate access to the Father, and he has achieved for us redemption and reconciliation and restoration. And every child of God has God’s Holy Spirit living inside them—God with us, indeed.

No matter what might go wrong in this life, no matter what difficulties you may face, no matter how lonely your life might be, no matter how sad or depressed you might be, no matter how painful your situation, no matter how bleak the Christmas season might be for you, no matter how strong your fears or how terrifying the prospects of the future might be to you, if you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, you can see through it all to the one who has forgiven your sins and who invites you into his very presence.

That’s what the birth of this Christmas Child is all about.

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