“Now the birth of Jesus Messiah was like this …” Following the genealogy from Abraham down to Joseph and Jesus, Matthew tells the birth story proper in Matthew 1:18-25. While Mary definitely plays a role—she is usually referred to as “his mother”—Joseph is the key character in this telling of the Christmas story. It all begins with an embarrassing, seemingly compromising situation: “While Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph before they came together, she was discovered to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit.” Matthew says nothing about the visit of the angel Gabriel in Luke 1, though his words may suggest he knew. Instead, Matthew takes up Joseph’s quandary of honor: he is betrothed to a young pregnant woman of whose situation he had no part. Joseph does not want to raise another person’s son, yet he also wants to guard Mary’s honor since he is a right and decent man. So “not wanting to make a show of her, he desired quietly to release her (from the marriage agreement).” This was not the first time something like this had happened to a young woman, likely in her teens, and wouldn’t be the last, so Joseph probably had some framework for his decision in order for there to be as little noise as possible.
But God saw it differently. “While Joseph was pondering his decision, Look!, 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 that conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit, and she will birth a son, and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’” There is a lot to unpack in these two verses!
This is the first of three angelic appearances to Joseph in dreams. Had Joseph responded to dreams before? We don’t know, but this one was vivid enough that he remembered and listened because each element was important. First, Joseph was not called “son of Jacob (ben Yakov)” as in the genealogy, but “son of David,” his royal ancestor. Second, he was told “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” These words may point to Joseph’s true motive for releasing Mary from the agreement: he was afraid of what others would say. To marry Mary would be an act of courage on his part. But the reasons the angel gave diminished his fear and worry in light of the enormous purposes of God. First, the angel assured Joseph that Mary was indeed pure, “For the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Second, the angel indicates the child would be a son—without the benefit of ultrasound! Third, Joseph is to name the child Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins.” The name Jesus (Yeshua) means “savior.”
Could this child be the Messiah? Well, the angel ends the dream by setting the whole event in the light of the prophetic word in Isaiah: “But all this has happened to complete the word from the Lord through the prophet saying, Look! a virgin will become pregnant and will birth a son, and you will call his name Emmanuel.” Joseph would know exactly what Emmanuel meant, but Matthew translates the Hebrew term for any of his Greek only readers: “God (el) with us (immanu).” Though some might see the quotation from Isaiah as Matthew’s comment, the narrative would indicate it as the angel’s punctuating remark in the dream: the entire event was planned and spoken of before by God, and in Jesus, God would become incarnate among us, Emmanuel!
When Joseph awoke he acted on the dream “as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” First, he took Mary as his wife. The child would be legitimate in the eyes of the world, despite rumors. Second, he had no sexual relations with Mary until the birth. Finally, he named the child Jesus.
Joseph not only shows himself to be an honorable, righteous man, but a man of courage who listened to God and became part of God’s plan to redeem the world.