Summary: Joseph and Mary had no say over the name of their first child. He was not named for anyone else, not for what character was hoped for him, but for the purpose for which he was born in the first place.
Matthew 1:18-25 Joseph’s Dream
12/1/02 D. Marion Clark
“What’s in a name?” so questions Juliet. There may be much in a name. Some of us are named after loved and respected family members. We carry in our name the remembrance of someone else. Others of us are named for others outside the family – perhaps for a president or a famous athlete or star. Some of us are given names for their meanings – Grace, Joy, Christian. Joseph and Mary had no say over the name of their first child. It wasn’t family that insisted on his name, but an angel of the Lord. He was not named for anyone else, not for what character was hoped for him, but for the purpose for which he was born in the first place.
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.
I suppose what Matthew means is that the birth took place from this perspective that he is about to give. Scholars speculate the order that the gospels were written in. I will not bore you with the theories, but when it comes to the accounts of Jesus’ birth, it would be interesting to know whether Matthew or Luke wrote the first account. The reason is this. The authors do not conflict with each other, but they do certainly approach Jesus’ birth from two contrasting perspectives. It is as if Luke interviewed Jesus’ mother, Mary, and Matthew interviewed the father, Joseph. Reading Luke’s story, Joseph is a minor figure in the story, and Mary gets most of the attention. In Matthew’s story Joseph is the main character. Let us then look at the birth of Jesus through the eyes of Joseph.
When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
We need to understand the culture and times in which the story takes place to get the impact of this sentence. In our culture and times, to hear of an engaged woman being pregnant hardly raises an eyebrow. If there is disapproval, it is not over the revelation that a couple had relations before marriage, but that they did not take appropriate precautions.
In Joseph’s and Mary’s day, however, such a revelation brought great shame to the couple. They lived in a society bound not simply by moral customs, but by divine law. To have premarital relations is to transgress God’s law. It is shameful sin. The Jews understood and valued sexual purity. To break that law meant that a couple was unchaste, defiled, and further brought shame on the child, the fruit of that union.
The concept of being betrothed, or engaged, also differed from our concept. For us, to become engaged is little more than declaring that a couple intends to make a commitment of marriage. That engagement can be broken at any time with no consequences other than the obvious emotional ones. When Joseph and Mary became betrothed, they entered into a commitment that was as strong as marriage vows. Note in verse 19 that Joseph is referred to as Mary’s husband. To break the engagement required the same action as getting a divorce.
Assuming that Joseph and Mary’s situation followed the typical custom of their times, they had been engaged – i.e. planned to be married – much earlier by their parents who would have made an agreement. Such customs are still practiced today in Eastern and Mid-Eastern countries. Thus they would have become engaged in younger years by their parents; then, as they near the age for marriage, they would have become betrothed, and finally married.
Do you see the dilemma that Joseph is in? Some of you may be thinking, but what about Mary? She probably was in a worse situation. That is true. She was. Not only because she was pregnant without Joseph, but, in truth, there were double standards for women. Should Joseph divorce Mary, her chances for ever being married were over. The best she could hope for is to live with her parents and hope that her child would be a son who could support her when he became a man. He, himself, would have a difficult time finding a wife. What parents want to bargain with a shameful woman for their daughter?
Even so, consider Joseph’s dilemma. He learns that Mary is pregnant. We have to be careful of speculation. We do not know how he learns. Perhaps Mary breaks the news. Perhaps, which I think more likely, her parents speak for her. Mary, if following custom, would be young, maybe thirteen or fourteen. Joseph should be in his later teens, possibly older. Perhaps he has been told of Mary’s bizarre explanation of the conception resulting from the Holy Spirit. We don’t know, though we certainly can anticipate how credible he thought her story was.