O come, O come Emmanuel, / And ransom captive Israel . . .
—Latin antiphon, 12th century
Christ was born to save! / Christ was born to save!
—“Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” Mediaeval hymn
Joseph was heart-broken, frustrated, even frightened. His beloved Mary was pregnant. The child in her womb was certainly not his. He had never touched his betrothed. When he pressed her for the truth, she said that God was the child’s father; that the conception was the miraculous work of God’s Spirit. She said that this miracle-child would be the Messiah… Israel’s long-awaited King. She had no other story, no other explanation.
Joseph was no more accustomed to angels and miracles than we are. When Mary told him that Gabriel had appeared to her to announce her role in God’s plan of redemption, he naturally assumed that she was lying, deluded, or crazy. The whispers in the marketplace, of course, settled on the first. The “good girl” had got herself in trouble, and now she was trying to hide her shame with blasphemous fairy tales. Son of God, indeed!
Joseph couldn’t understand. He knew Mary. Her faith was sincere, sane, and rational. She was used to owning up to her sins. She hated hypocrisy and deceit, especially when she discovered them in herself. But this story was beyond belief. For four hundred years God had been silent. No prophets, no dreams, no visions. No miracles. And even if this were the time for the silence to end—and some rabbis thought that might be true—who were they to be caught up in the great and incomprehensible machinations of heaven?
All right, yes. Joseph stood in direct lineal descent from David through the kings of Judah. But that line lay under a curse and its glory had faded long ago. No child born from the seed of the wicked king Jeconiah could ever reign over Israel. The prophet Jeremiah had said so (Jer. 22:30). That left Joseph “prophetically” irrelevant and insignificant. And Mary, yes, was also descended from David, though not through the ancient kings. She and he both were simple, unimportant people. Theirs was a despised, little backwater city in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. It was certainly not the focus of ancient prophecy.
So what next? Joseph had to ask himself. He loved Mary, but she was a fornicator and a liar—or else she mentally went off the edge. Jewish betrothal was nearly marriage, and Jewish law allowed for the execution of an adulteress. But Jewish law also allowed for mercy and a quiet divorce. Being a godly man, Joseph settled on the latter. He would quietly dissolve the covenant that bound them together and do so without a public charge of adultery. Of course, that could raise questions about his own integrity in the matter.
It was with these thoughts, or something like them, that Joseph lay down, hoping for sleep. But when sleep came, an incredible dream came with it. A glorious angel of Yahweh stood before Joseph and confirmed Mary’s words. The angel said:
Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21).
Joseph awoke, certain that the revelation was real, that Mary had told the truth. Now he could move ahead in true faith, knowing that God would supply the grace and strength the future would certainly require. With the break of morning, he would go to find Mary, his beloved.
He Shall Save His People
The name Jesus means, “Yahweh is salvation.” The angel didn’t explain the full depth of the name’s meaning or the profound theology it expresses. He didn’t hand Joseph the Gospel of John or the Formula of Chalcedon. But there were a few things Joseph should have understood.
First, the Child in Mary’s womb was the Messiah. From Eden to Abraham to King David to the Prophets, God had promised a Savior and King who would rescue God’s people from their enemies and restore them to the fullness of God’s blessing. He would be God’s Anointed, the Messiah or Christ. He would come in the fullness of God’s Spirit and power.
Second, as Messiah, this Child was God’s means of salvation. This Child was quite literally the Hope of the world. What exactly this Jesus would do, Joseph didn’t know. Neither did Mary. They couldn’t foresee the cross. The death and resurrection of the Messiah were things that God’s people didn’t truly understand until Jesus rose from the dead—even though the prophets had written of “the sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow” (1 Pet. 1:11). But Joseph had to understand that this Child was the turning point of the ages.
Third, Joseph should have understood that man’s greatest enemy is his own sin. For Jesus’ primary mission wasn’t to save men from war or disease or ignorance or poverty. Jesus came to rescue man from his own rebellion and from the consequences of that rebellion: the curse… death and hell.
Fourth, this Jesus would accomplish God’s purposes. “He will save His people.” There was no doubt or hesitancy or waffling in the promise. Jesus would effectively rescue a people—“His people”—from the penalty and power of sin. The angel’s words were a message of sovereign grace. Jesus would do more than extend an offer of salvation. He would accomplish salvation and overthrow the rule of sin and death.
Fifth, this child Jesus was, in fact, Immanuel, “God with us,” the virgin-born Child that Isaiah had spoken of (Isa. 7:14). Joseph understood that Mary was still a virgin and must remain such until the Child was born. And so “he knew her not” until she had given birth to the Child (Matt. 1:25). And then, as the angel commanded, he named the baby Jesus.
From Joseph, his adoptive father, Jesus received the legal title to the throne of David. Through Mary, He was born the natural Seed of David. But according to His divine nature, He was and is the Son of God, begotten from eternity. And so in taking to Himself true humanity, He became Immanuel, “God with us.” His mission was to “save His people from their sins.” It is this Child and this mission that we honor and celebrate and preach at Christmas. Now as then, God uses common, ordinary people to accomplish his purpose.
For Further Reading:
R. C. Sproul, Who Is Jesus? (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2009).
[The Kindle version is currently free from Amazon.]