Summary: Joseph had made a biblical, lawful and compassionate decision to quietly divorce Mary, but obeying God was more important to him than protecting his reputation. How about you?
Joseph was a “righteous man” (1:19). He knew what was right and he was ready to act upon it.
Joseph was engaged to Mary but they were not yet living together (1:18) and of course that immediately sounds strange to most 21st century people. Engaged but not living together! Yet there is even more to it than that. Jewish engagement back then was binding. It involved a year during which Joseph and Mary were technically and legally husband and wife, but during which they lived apart and did not spend time together unaccompanied. At the end a year of patience and anticipation their union would become complete in every way. Patience must have been required, as I remember only too well how eager I was to get married once Moira agreed to my proposal. I didn’t want to wait 18 months, but wait we did. It was during the year of engagement - legally married yet not able to be together - that Joseph’s righteousness is tested.
I find myself unable to put myself in Joseph’s shoes to hear genuinely shocking news, and in any case this is the one and only time in history that God has acted in this particular way. However, there is I believe a principle which emerges, and that principle speaks to us now.
Mary is “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (1:18). Joseph knows he is not the father and he knows that the law both allows him and expects him to end the marriage arrangement immediately. The Law of Moses provides for a certificate of divorce and Joseph would have been within his legal and moral rights to end his relationship with Mary, and he could and perhaps should have done it in a public way. However Joseph is not just righteous. He is also compassionate, “unwilling to expose [Mary] to public disgrace”; so he “planned to dismiss her quietly” (1:19). He was righteous and compassionate, something which hard-nosed Christians need to learn.
Joseph had absolutely every right to end it, “but just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’” (1:20-21).
“Joseph …do not be afraid” (20). Brothers and sisters in Christ when the Spirit of God speaks to you through the scriptures, through other people, or perhaps in a dream - do not be afraid! When you’ve made a conscious decision to take action which is seen by others and by you as righteous, legal, biblical and sensible, if God breaks in and disagrees - do not be afraid! “When Joseph awoke from sleep he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took [Mary] as his wife” (1:24); because Joseph was not just righteous and compassionate; he also obeyed the messenger of God.
In doing so Joseph was taking a big risk. It really was the equivalent of a respectable man marrying a girl who had gotten pregnant in Victorian society. Joseph was risking rejection for both Mary and himself even though his final decision was based on righteousness, compassion and ultimately obeying the leading of Almighty God!
Here is the quandary faced by Joseph and it is a deep challenge which Jesus often faced, and it is a challenge that every Christian must face: On the face of it Joseph’s actions were outrageous! Mary’s pregnancy will start to show. Tongues will wag, and of course it was James the brother of Jesus who later described the tongue as “a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:8-9). Neither Joseph nor Mary had done anything wrong yet there was huge potential for poisonous tongues to wag like an excited dog’s tail!
Here, I believe, comes a principle. Sometimes options are open to us that are sensible, acceptable, reasonable, legal, compassionate and biblical (such as Joseph quietly ending his relationship with Mary). However, even with all of that it does not automatically mean that is what God would have us do! We must always test out our thoughts and decisions against scripture and we must seek godly advice from other believers, and we must remember that Jesus also took decisions which upset large groups of religious people in particular. Healing people on the religious day of rest (The Sabbath), eating meals with sinners and having his feet washed by a woman who was almost certainly a prostitute were examples of occasions when Jesus could be legitimately criticised on the basis of a biblical faith. However, Jesus was obeying the deepest sense of God’s law by loving God (Deut 6:5), loving neighbour (Lev 19:18); and by allowing mercy to triumph over judgement (James 2:13).