Joseph, husband of Mary, risked shame and humiliation, and stepped into the wild abyss of faith in God. It made his life uncomfortable at times, but it also made him a hero, honored by his step-son, Jesus.
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Matthew #2. 1:18-25
The first installment on the book of Matthew got a little long, and I did not have a chance to tell you about Matthew himself, or anything general about the book.
There is nothing in the book of Matthew itself that tells us who wrote it. However, all of the writings of the early Church assume that it was Matthew, apostle of Jesus. In fact, Matthew is the most quoted book of the New Testament among the early church writings. We have no evidence that proves them wrong in thinking that Matthew was the author, and there are some facts that suggest logically that he was. For instance, Matthew was Jew, but as a tax collector, he would have had extensive dealings with non-Jews, which means he would have been even more fluent in Greek than many of his fellow Jews, certainly more so than John, who grew up in Galilee. And indeed we find that his Greek is indeed more polished and literate than any of John’s writings.
In Matthew 9:9, the author records this incident:
As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow Me! ” So he got up and followed Him. (Matt 9:9, HCSB)
Both Luke and Mark record this same incident, but they call the person in question by the name “Levi.”
In all the lists of the twelve apostles (Matt 10:2-24; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:13-16; Acts 1:13) Matthew is mentioned, but no Levi. However, Matthew 10:3 points out that this Matthew was previously a tax collector. All the evidence then, is that Levi and Matthew are one and the same person, known by two different names. Perhaps, like Paul and Peter, this “Levi” preferred to take on a new name after following Jesus, to separate himself from his old life. Certainly, as a former tax-collector, hated by all, he had many reasons to want to go by a new name.
Luke and Mark (as well as Matthew) record that this individual left tax-collecting and began to follow Jesus. Tax collectors were considered to be particularly despicable people. The Roman empire demanded taxes from the provinces to run the empire, and the rulers of the provinces demanded additional taxes to run the province. They empowered some people to be tax collectors on their behalf to acquire this money. The tax collectors could call upon soldiers if someone refused to pay, so they were feared and hated. In this way, tax collectors were considered traitors – they collaborated with foreign rulers against their own people. Not only that, but the government did not care if the tax-man collected “extra” for himself. The government wanted what it asked for, but beyond that, it was up to the tax collector to decide if he wanted to keep more for himself. Needless to say, most tax collectors made themselves rich by over-taxing the people. It was nothing less than legalized robbery. If anyone objected, the tax-man would have them arrested and imprisoned. Several times throughout the gospels it mentions sinners…and tax collectors. In other words, tax collectors were in a class of evil all by themselves. Matthew Mark and Luke all record this incident:
After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow Me! ” So, leaving everything behind, he got up and began to follow Him. Then Levi hosted a grand banquet for Him at his house. Now there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others who were guests with them. But the Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to His disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? ” Jesus replied to them, “The healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:27-32, HCSB)
Matthew was generally hated by all, considered by his fellow Jews to be a traitor, collaborator and thief. He was in a specially bad class of sinners. This made his experience with Jesus all the more powerful. Jesus came to him at the tax office. In fact, Jesus might have been there to pay his own taxes, and even as Matthew robbed him shamelessly, Jesus called him to follow him. Jesus accepted his invitation to come to his house, and ate with him. When questioned, Jesus said he came exactly to save such people. This must have affected Matthew deeply. Certainly, it changed the direction of his entire life.
Throughout the gospel, Matthew quotes the Old Testament frequently. Remember, at that time, there were two versions of the Old Testament. One was the Hebrew text, used in synagogues in Judea and Galilee and surrounding areas. But there was also the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, used in Egypt, and in other areas of the world, father away from the Jewish nation. Matthew quotes sometimes from the Hebrew, and sometimes from the Septuagint, as it seems to please him. This shows that he was very familiar with both versions. Maybe one way to look at this is how I use the New Testament in my sermons. Frequently, I quote an English version of the New Testament when I’m referring to it. But occasionally, I study the Greek closely, and I use my own translation of the Greek. So Matthew sometimes quotes the Septuagint, but other times appears to be quoting the Hebrew version (which, of course, he translates back into Greek, since his entire writing is in Greek). Again, we have the impression of a man who is literate, and well educated.
Most people think Matthew was writing for Jewish Christians, since he talks so much about the Old Testament. They may be right, since he describes some Jewish customs and words that he does not bother to explain. But the fact that he uses the Old Testament so much should be important even to Gentile Christians. Particularly today, it is helpful for us to understand how the Old Testament bears witness to the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Now, let’s move on to the next few verses: Chapter 1:18-25
Concerning the birth of Jesus, Luke’s gospel tells us a lot about the perspective of Mary. Many scholars think, probably correctly, that Luke met Mary while she was still living, and heard her stories. But Matthew gives us more of Joseph’s point of view. All four gospels speak of Jesus interacting with his mother and brothers when he is grown up, but there is no mention of Joseph after Jesus was about twelve years old. This suggests very strongly that Joseph had died by the time Jesus started his ministry at age thirty. So where did Matthew get his information about Joseph? The logical conclusion is that Jesus himself told his disciples about his step-dad. I find this fascinating, and it makes me all the more interested in the little that we know of Joseph.
In my opinion, Joseph, step-father to Jesus, is one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated heroes of faith. He was a man of profound faith and steadfastness. His example is one that could help us.
Let’s consider his situation. Back in those days, engagement was a big deal – in fact it was almost as big of a deal as marriage. So when it says Joseph was engaged to Mary, this was no casual thing. Engagement involved what we might consider marriage vows, and engagements were not usually broken off except for some very serious causes, like the discovery that one partner was unfaithful. An engaged couple still hadn’t had the ceremony and begun to live together, but in general, they were considered to be as committed to each other as a married couple. Unwed pregnancy was also a very big deal in those days. Jewish law actually provided that a woman who was unfaithful to her husband could be stoned to death. By the time of the New Testament, that didn’t happen very often any more, partly because the Romans put a stop to it, but it was still there in the Jewish law. Even without that, it was a major scandal for an unmarried woman to have a child.
So here is Joseph, engaged, and he finds out his fiancée is pregnant – and of course, it wasn’t his baby. Even in this day and age, that would be enough for most men to call off a relationship. Everything we read about Joseph tells us he was a good, decent man. He still cares enough for Mary that he doesn’t want her to suffer public disgrace, so he plans to break of the engagement quietly and discreetly. Even so, think of the hurt and humiliation he must feel! Even before they are properly married, this woman has cheated on him. All his happy dreams for the future are shattered around him by this humiliating betrayal.
So, after making his plans, he goes to bed. He has a dream in which an angel of the Lord tells him what’s really going on with Mary. Now, I want you to consider something. They knew just as much about the birds and bees back then as we do now. It’s not like they thought, “Oh sure, every so often you’re gonna have a virgin get pregnant, even though she’s never been with a man.” And in Hebrew culture, the idea of God impregnating someone was borderline blasphemy. The ancient Greeks worshiped Gods who were sort of like really big and powerful human beings. Their gods, from time to time, would get enamored with some beautiful human woman and come down and have an affair. But this is not at all the type of God that the Jews (or we) believe in. To a Jewish man, this is a strange and almost blasphemous idea.
Matthew enters his first Old Testament reference in this account of the birth of Jesus. It comes from Isaiah 7:14
So here’s Joseph. In his mind, he’s already been made a fool and rejected. Now some sort of angelic being comes in a dream, and says, “don’t worry, she’s still a virgin, she hasn’t been unfaithful. God put the baby in there through his Holy Spirit.”
I think my response might have been, “Yeah, right. Whatever.” But here is Joseph, being played for an even bigger fool than before, and what is his response?
“When Joseph got up from sleeping, he did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her, but did not know her intimately until she gave birth to a son. And he named him Jesus. (Matt 1:24-25)
Joseph was confronted with a crisis of faith. He had a choice. He could follow proper social convention and save face for himself and protect his injured pride. Or he could step out into the wild abyss of faith, risking ridicule and humiliation. He chose faith. Remember, Joseph didn’t even have a waking angel visitation. It was all in a dream. But he clearly received what the scripture said, the quotation from Isaiah. He chose to trust what God had said in the bible, even though it made him look a fool. And Jesus, his step-son remembered him, and commended him for it. Though we don’t often make a big deal of it, Joseph is truly one of the heroes of faith in the Bible.
There’s another thing, too. Okay, he accepts in faith that God is in this. But now, think of it: Joseph was going to be God’s step-dad. Seriously! There’s a song by Michael Card that I love. The picture is of Joseph standing there, holding Jesus as a baby, rocking him to sleep. And he’s thinking, “How can I do this? How can I be a father to the son of God?” Again, he faced the choice. He could have said, “This is ridiculous. I can’t do this!” He could have made all kinds of objections: “I can’t provide him with the education he will need. I can’t even be sure I’ll be able to feed and clothe this child. How do I raise him? How do I discipline him? Will I need to discipline him?”
But, as before, he responded in faith. The first few chapters of Matthew show us a man who relied on God, was sensitive to him, and responded quickly and obediently to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
I also think that it is no accident that Joseph heard from God. God picked not only Mary, but Mary and Joseph together. Joseph was ready to hear from God. He was probably the sort of man who wanted to be closer to God, wanted to hear from him. He remained sensitive to him and willing to make the hard choices of faith over feelings, faith over conventional wisdom, faith over fear. He made the choice of faith time after time.
Joseph is great example to us. We think about the birth of Jesus in connection with Christmas, and warm fuzzy feelings. But when we really think about it, that little child is confronting us with a choice. Will we believe and accept that the Creator of the universe willingly joined himself to a human egg, laid aside the privileges of divinity, and became this little baby? We really believe that here, in this frail, impoverished child, with the young, inexperienced mother and the plain, ordinary step-father, is the salvation of the world? Are we willing to take action on that choice of faith?
I hope Joseph’s example will encourage us to say, “yes.” If Joseph can look that stupid, so can we. If he can marry a pregnant woman, be step-father to God’s son, move all around the world because he heard something in a dream, we can certainly give up our pride, and trust this little child Jesus with our lives now, and our eternal future.