God did not only provide a royal lineage for His Son, He provided a miraculous, divine lineage as well.
“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. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
“But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and 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.’”Matthew 1:18-20 (NRSV)
The virgin birth has been questioned in recent times, but Matthew makes a big deal about it. He was careful to explain each of the names in Jesus’ genealogy were fathered by the name before it: “Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob…” and so on. Until you get to verse 16 in the genealogy, which states,
“Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.”
Because Mary and Joseph were married before Jesus was born, Jesus inherited Joseph’s lineage. But Joseph did not father Jesus. Instead, Matthew said Jesus was conceived in Mary through the Holy Spirit. God fathered Jesus Christ.
It is a pivotal point in Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ story. Why a virgin birth? Was there a biological reason? A moral reason? All we can say is that in Genesis 3:15, God said the deliverer would come from the seed of the woman. This is the way God had always planned to give the world the Messiah.
The ancient Jewish wedding customs were a little different than the way we do things now. Typically, the marriage was arranged between the parents when the future bride and groom were still children.
Everyone in the community would know these two were promised to each other, to be married when they grew up. Up until the betrothal, if the girl became unwilling to go through with the arrangement, she had the option of backing out, and her family could then make a new arrangement with a different family. But once the girl and the boy both came of age, a legal ceremony called “betrothal” would be performed which would have the couple exchange absolutely binding vows, tantamount to a marriage.
During the betrothal time there would not be much contact between the bride and groom, each would live with their parents, and not enter into any of the privileges of marriage. The betrothal period lasted about a year to prove the bride’s virginity and to give the groom time to prepare their new home.
When the time was right – something only the father of the groom would determine – the formal wedding would take place, and the groom would take the bride to his family home to begin their married life together.
It was during this betrothal time that Mary was visited by the angel, and Joseph found himself in the predicament of having a pregnant fiancé.
If the baby had been his, he would not have hesitated to take Mary as his wife. Instead, he was troubled. The only way out of a betrothal was for it to be broken by another legal contract called a divorce, which is what Joseph determined to do, quietly, in order to protect Mary’s dignity and the reputation of her family.
We’re not sure when Joseph found out Mary was pregnant. In the gospel of Luke, chapter 1, it says an angel came to tell Mary what was about to happen. Mary was perplexed since she was not married, and she was a virgin. But the angel explained the child would be fathered by the Holy Spirit. Something unique would take place inside of her that would allow the Son of God to be born from her body.
Somehow, under the direct action of the third person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit, the second person of the Godhead, the Son, was implanted in Mary’s uterus.
Amazingly, Mary said yes. Every woman since Eve had been hoping and praying for this honor. But Mary must have also known that, given the circumstances, this was not going to be easy.
Right after her encounter with the angel, Mary left to visit her elderly cousin Elizabeth, who was experiencing her own miraculous pregnancy, carrying John the Baptist. In Elizabeth, Mary found someone who understood completely what was happening to her. Mary must have used the next three months to think and pray through her feelings about her own circumstances, as she helped Elizabeth, and stayed for the birth of Elizabeth’s son John.
So, doing the math, here.
- Mary received the angel’s astounding message.
- She must have told her parents soon after.
- A plan was devised for Mary to see her elderly relatives, the priest Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth.
- By this time, Elizabeth was six months into her miracle pregnancy, and the story of Zechariah’s own visit by an angel would have been well-known by now.
- Mary stayed at least three months, and most likely four months, for it is certain she was there when little John was born, and most likely stayed to help Elizabeth through those first weeks.
When Mary returned home, there is no doubt her own baby bump was showing. In a small town like Bethlehem it would have taken only a few hours for that news to have rippled out to everyone! Think of the curtains fluttering as neighbors watched Mary come home. Think of all those back doors banging as people ran from home to home, spreading their story. (If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you know exactly what I mean.)
Unlike Elizabeth, Mary was just a girl, unmarried and pregnant in a time when that was considered a crime punishable by death. She was willing to obey God, but she didn’t know how God was going to work it out to protect her.
God’s immediate protection came in His wisdom of choosing the right man to be the earthly father of His Son. The ancient Jew would have been horrified and repulsed to find out his betrothed was pregnant. But Joseph was a righteous man, he didn’t want to expose Mary to public disgrace, which could have even resulted in her execution by stoning. That Joseph did not want any harm to come to Mary, or the baby, speaks volumes about his godly character, and tender compassion.
This is how righteousness is displayed, in the fruit of the Spirit, where you reach out in love and mercy, instead of having the knee-jerk reaction of saying “I can’t handle this, you’re going down.” He opted for quiet legal action, he would be free to marry someone else, a virgin, and she would be free to raise her child, and possibly even marry the man who had fathered it.
While Joseph was considering a quiet divorce as the most merciful thing to do in the situation, God took the initiative in protecting both Mary and Jesus by sending an angel to speak to Joseph in a dream, reassuring him the child was supernaturally conceived by God Himself.
When I was a young girl, there was an enormous social stigma attached to having a baby when you weren’t married. You got sent away to extended family, had the baby in secret, started another life, or gave the baby up for adoption, very privately. Children raised out of wedlock didn’t have the same legal rights as children born to or adopted by a married couple.
But right around the 1970’s that all changed with abortion laws and the legalizing of all children’s rights, regardless of whether they were raised by a married couple. Today, nearly fifty years later, lots of single women actively pursue getting pregnant, there isn’t any stigma at all, it’s actually kind of popular, except in some conservative circles, so it’s harder to imagine what this must have been like.
Even though they were living in Nazareth, which was not as strong a religious community as Jerusalem, and was actually sort of a cosmopolitan trade center for its day, Joseph and Mary were both godly people. Try to think how difficult it must have been to face the family pressure, the social pressure, the disapproving stares when they attended synagogue. The father is who?!
They never even had a big wedding, but hurried through a small private affair, just like a shotgun marriage. Yet, both Mary and Joseph were convinced that God knew what He was doing, and would take care of them all along the way.
God often uses difficult circumstance to accomplish His will
God’s will was to have His Son, the Son of God, be born to this little family, and the Lord took care of them.
How willing are you (am I?) to trust God, to have faith in Him, that He knows what He is doing, that He is good and loving and powerful enough to take care of you all along the way? How willing are you to lean into the struggle and give it all you’ve got, so you will be cooperating with God as He accomplishes His purposes in you?
That’s where Mary and Joseph were when they said yes to God.
[The Annunciation | James Tissot [Public domain]