How strange it must have seemed to Joseph. He was supposed to be engaged to Mary. At that time in Israel, the parents decided who their children would marry. Good parents tried to make sure their child would be happy with their choice. Once both sets of parents agreed upon the marriage, the commitment was legally binding. The young man and woman were already called husband and wife. The only way it could be broken was through a divorce. All that was left was the wedding ceremony itself. That was the situation of Joseph and Mary. As far as everyone in their world was concerned, Mary and Joseph already belonged to each other for the rest of their lives.
Everyone had been so sure of Mary’s virtue. Yet before she and Joseph ever came together as man and wife, it was discovered that Mary was going to have a baby. In fact, when she returned from her mysterious visit to her cousin’s house, she was already four months along. Imagine Joseph’s shock. How could this have happened? How could she have done this? Did she love the other man? Joseph had formed so many hopes and dreams around her, but now it seemed her true character was revealed. Everyone was talking about the scandal, and most of them probably assumed it was a result of Joseph’s sin. The rejection and shame for Joseph must have been terrible. What shock and anger he must have felt! What heartbreak and betrayal and despair. And now he had to figure out what to do next.
Joseph knew he could never marry a woman who had given herself to another man. He was committed to do what was right according to the Law of his God, and if he married a woman who had committed adultery, it would be as if he approved of her actions. It wouldn’t honor the Lord.
If he had wanted to, Joseph knew he could humiliate her and expose her to public disgrace. He could destroy her reputation forever. According to the Law, he could even have her stoned to death. It would prove to everyone that he had nothing to do with the trouble that Mary had gotten herself into. But could he really imagine her small body being pummeled with rocks?
As young as he was, Joseph was a man of great righteousness. Instead of divorcing her in public, where everyone would know his reasons, Joseph decided to divorce Mary privately. Only two or three witnesses would learn the full story of Mary’s disgrace. Perhaps he could protect her from some of the terrible grief that lay ahead for her now that she had so thoroughly crippled her own life. What a man of compassion was he!
Joseph settled what he would do in his heart and went to bed, no doubt burdened and filled with dread by the task ahead of him. Sleep must have seemed like a welcome rest from this heavy disappointment. Yet as he slumbered, a remarkable vision formed in his mind. A glorious angel appeared to him in a dream. The angel said:
“‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a Son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.’”
When Joseph woke up, he had a lot to think about. What if it was true? What if Mary really was innocent? What if she really was a virgin? What if she was so treasured by God that she had been specially chosen to bear His child? It would change everything!
You see, Mary and Joseph were chosen for the most sacred task in history. They were chosen to raise the Son of God. Eight hundred years before Joseph and Mary’s love story, God spoke through his prophet Isaiah and told of these amazing events. He said:
“‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel-which means “God with us.”’”
This Child was like nothing the world had ever known. God himself was taking on a body of human flesh. This was the Lord who made all the stars at the beginning of time! This was the God who kept the whole universe running by His powerful Word! And now He was coming to do a whole new thing! He was going leave His throne in Heaven to enter His own creation and become part of it as a vulnerable baby boy (John 1:1-5). He would grow up among God’s people and walk and talk among them. God was coming as the great hero to save humanity from the great catastrophe of their sin and rebellion.
Wow. Joseph had a big choice in front of him. This dream called him into the task of adopting and raising the Savior of the world. This was staggering news and an unbelievable privilege, but it was also something Joseph had to believe by faith. How could he prove it? How could he explain this to his family and his neighbors? How could he ever make them believe that Mary was anything more than an adulteress woman? If he married her, they would assume that her pregnancy was his fault. How could he convince them that his child was from God Himself? Yet the angel said, “Do not fear.” The great moment of decision had come.
Would Joseph believe?
When Joseph woke up from his dream, he stepped out into immediate obedience. He did what the angel commanded and took Mary into his home to be his wife.
Imagine Mary’s relief. She did not lose the love of her life. Imagine the comfort of his protection and support. She was not alone on this journey. This man would join her by faith in the purposes of God! Yet Joseph was not with Mary as a husband is with his wife until after the Child was born. He waited for the proper time. And when the Child was born, he named the baby boy Jesus, just as the angel had said.