The Skeptic who Believed

 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Matthew 1:18

Joseph was the skeptic who came to believe …

In reading Matthew 1:18-25, it’s obvious that Joseph faced a variety of problems with Mary’s unusual conception. Put yourself in his sandals and you’d probably be skeptical too. After all, if you were engaged to be married and your fiancée told you she was pregnant, and you knew you had nothing to do with it, there would only be one logical conclusion – she’d been unfaithful.

That’s what Joseph must have thought. To make matters worse, in Joseph’s day betrothal was unlike a modern day engagement; it was considered marriage. It lasted for one year and was already a binding contract terminable only by death or divorce. Betrothal became marriage when the husband took his wife home after a public ceremony. At this stage of the relationship, and only at this point, was sexual intercourse proper.

One of the purposes of betrothal, therefore, was to test the purity of the bride. So when Joseph discovered Mary’s pregnancy and he hadn’t yet taken her home to be his wife you can imagine his doubt. As C. S. Lewis says, “He knew enough biology for that!”

Not only did Joseph have the problem of Mary’s pregnancy to fuel his skepticism, he also had his own righteousness. As a righteous man he didn’t want to marry a seemingly impure and unfaithful woman. Within his moral framework it would have been impossible for him to join himself with someone who didn’t share his standards. This was further complicated by the obvious desire, on Joseph’s behalf, to avoid disgracing Mary publicly. For according to the Mishnah, an adulteress was to be taken to the Eastern Gate of Jerusalem where a priest would tear her garments, remove all her jewellery, and clothe her in black or ugly garments tied by a rope. The purpose of this ritual was “to disgrace her” so “that all women may be taught not to do after your lewdness” (Sotah 1:6).

So in order to avoid the Beth Din (rabbinical court), Joseph decided to seek a private divorce that would involve the notification of Mary’s father and another two witnesses. In this way he could keep his conscience clear and his compassion intact.

Then God intervened.

Before Joseph could organize the divorce God sent an angel in a dream. The timing of this message was perfect and it dealt directly with Joseph’s doubts. This is what the angel said, “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife” Matthew 1:20. This was as good as saying, “Don’t let your skepticism stand in the way of your marriage to Mary.” Then an additional comment, “What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” Matthew 1:20. Which was basically communicating to Joseph, “Mary has not committed adultery. I the Lord am responsible for the pregnancy.” Furthermore, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus” Matthew 1:21. This final announcement may well have been the clincher in turning Joseph from skepticism to belief. For only five Old Testament people and one New Testament person, John the Baptist, had been given names directly from God. Now Joseph hears that Mary’s baby should be called “Joshua” (“Yesua” – Yahweh saves. Yahweh is salvation. “Jesus” is the Greek form of “Joshua.”). Thus at the very least Joseph would have understood that this was no ordinary child. He may even have recognized that Mary was carrying the promised Messiah.

Once convinced that Mary’s son was due to a virgin conception from the Holy Spirit Joseph acts in accordance with what we’d expect of someone who’d totally accepted the explanation he’d been given. He “took Mary home as his wife” and respectfully “had no union with her until she gave birth to a son” Matthew 1:24-25. These subsequent acts demonstrate how Joseph sincerely believed in Mary’s purity and the supernatural nature of her pregnancy. By his actions it’s obvious that the skeptic had become a believer.

If Joseph then, the man with his honour and integrity, in fact his righteousness, at stake, could be convinced, then shouldn’t we be too? For Joseph was no naive fool. He was never duped, and he certainly understood the ramifications of his actions. Yes, Joseph gives us one of the first testimonies that Jesus was and is the Messiah. By his response he leaps out of history and stands as a witness against all those who would reject the virgin birth. It should therefore come as no surprise that Joseph got the inestimable privilege of announcing to the world the name that is above all other names – Jesus (cf. Matthew 1:25).

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