How Joseph became Jesus’s father.

by K.W. Leslie, 06 December

I know; people say Jesus’s foster father. Nope; adoptive father.

Matthew 1.18-25

Luke tells of Jesus’s birth from Mary’s point of view; Matthew from Joseph’s. In Luke she received a message from an angel. Now Joseph had to receive a message for himself. ’Cause obviously he didn’t believe Mary.

Matthew 1.18-19 KWL
18 The genesis of Christ Jesus was like this: His mother Mary was promised to Joseph.
Before she came to be together with him, she had a child in her womb from the Holy Spirit.
19 Her man Joseph was righteous.
Not wanting her to make a scene, he wished to secretly release her.

Greek myths abound of stories where Zeus disguised himself as traveling salesmen or geese or bulls golden rain, and impregnating all sorts of loose ’n freaky Greek women with his hybrid spawn. And now here it seemed Mary was trying to tell him a Jewish variation of that same myth: “The Holy Spirit did it. Seriously.”

Moderns like to assume the ancients were stupid, and actually believed all those myths—they didn’t realize, deep down, that these tales were invented by Greeks trying to disguise their adulterous affairs by blaming their unexpected pregnancies on their false god, who obviously couldn’t defend himself. Of course, these skeptical moderns never bothered to read these myths: The Greeks didn’t believe their women when they claimed Zeus was the father. They took out their outrage upon their wives and daughters just the same. Banished ’em, imprisoned ’em, sealed ’em in a coffin and threw them into the sea. (Then Zeus had to smite them for their unbelief.) The ancients knew exactly how babies are made. The Zeus-did-it story never worked.

Joseph is more proof of that. He knew the LORD didn’t make babies that way. His god was no wandering rapist. So Joseph understandably decided to end their relationship.

In his culture, if your woman displeased you for any reason, the rabbis ruled it was okay to end things. God has another view, as Jesus declared: Infidelity is the only valid reason. Mt 19.9 And it sure looked like Mary was unfaithful.

But what did the Law say oughta happen under these circumstances?

Infidelity, divorce, and death.

In our culture, once a couple says vows and signs papers, we consider ’em married. In Joseph’s, they were only engaged: They weren’t married till they “came together,” i.e. had sex. Our culture would consider Joseph and Mary married. The Jews didn’t. But they were bound together just the same—’cause vows. When you swear to God, you’re bound by it.

But if a couple married, and the husband discovered his new wife hadn’t been faithful to him before they came together, that’s adultery, and valid grounds for ending the relationship. Some men might dismiss it and forgive her. (Heck, they’d often done worse. Ancients lived by egregious double standards when it came to men and women.) But if a man wanted to make a stink, he could.

A man might publicly accuse his woman of not being a virgin when they came together. According to Moses, if he was found to have been lying about her, and slandered her good name, he’d be whipped, fined 100 sheqels, and forced to support his wife the rest of her days; he was forbidden to divorce her. Dt 22.13-19 But if he was proven correct—

Deuteronomy 22.20-21 KWL
20 “If the word is true—if virginity isn’t found in the maiden—
21 take the maiden to the door of her father’s house.
Stone her with stones, men of her city. She dies.
She did a nasty thing to Israel,
to have sex in her father’s house. Remove evil from among you.”

Seriously, she’d get the death penalty. (Like I said, it’s an egregious double standard: Whipping and a fine for the man was light, considering the woman got death.) Death was the common penalty for lots of things under the Law. It’s why Paul concluded sin is compensated with death. Ro 6.23

Now, Joseph was described as díkaios/“righteous.” Interpreters tend to believe this means he was good, (NLT) just (KJV), noble (Message), or always did what was right (GNT). It does not. The authors of the New Testament only defined people as righteous when they trust God, ’cause sola fide—righteousness only comes by faith. Ro 3.22, Ga 3.11, Pp 3.9, He 11.7, Jm 2.23 Now yeah, some Christians claim Matthew believed differently, teaching as Pharisees did that people were righteous because they followed the Law. Mt 1.19 NIV Dispensationalists in particular, who claim salvation worked differently before Jesus died for our sins. But that’s not consistent with the rest of the New Testament. Joseph was righteous by the NT definition: He believed God.

’Cause if Joseph was righteous because he followed the Law… well, you might notice he didn’t follow the Law, and had no intention of following it. You just read the Law: He was supposed to object to Mary’s infidelity, then have the men of Nazareth stone her to death. Instead, he wanted to privately release her from their betrothal. Sweep her alleged infidelity under the rug. Not marry her, but let her live.

We might consider that to be “good behavior”—in part because we know Mary was innocent, and in part because our culture thinks honor killing is barbaric. (Well, most folks in our culture think so. Others would totally bring it back if they could.) But by an obvious and strict interpretation of the Law, Joseph intended to break it. So if righteousness comes by the Law, by definition Joseph was not righteous.

Thank God righteousness doesn’t come by Law; nobody’d be righteous but Jesus.

I should finally add the Romans had banned honor killing. Only they got to kill people in the territories they occupied. Jn 18.31 Now yes, the Nazarenes could’ve killed her illegally, like they later wanted to do with Jesus. Lk 4.29 Just because you ban lynchings, honor killings, vigilantism, or other forms of murder and mob violence, doesn’t mean they never happen. But if the Romans chose to make an example of the Nazarenes, and crucify the jilted husband who riled up the mob, they easily could’ve done so. So those preachers who insist, “Mary was so brave for having an out-of-wedlock baby, ’cause she could’ve been stoned to death”—they don’t know their history. (And it’d be nice if some of them extended more grace to some other out-of-wedlock babies and mothers they know.)

Angelic correction.

Once Joseph determined to end things, all he’d really have to do was go to Mary and proclaim “I divorce you” thrice, then sign another document, a “bill of divorcement,” Dt 24.1 KJV and that was that. Didn’t even need to talk it over with Mary.

But before that happened, he went to sleep, and dreamed of an angel who ordered him to do otherwise.

Matthew 1.20 KWL
After reasoning this out, look!–the Lord’s angel appeared to him in a dream,
saying, “Joseph bar David, don’t be afraid to accept your woman Mary.
For what’s in her is generated by the Holy Spirit.”

There’s a lot of misinterpretation about Joseph and the angels in his dreams. Most of it is a result of people neither believing in prophetic dreams, nor believing that God still uses them.

Skeptics who don’t believe the gospels, and don’t believe in prophetic dreams either, figure this dream wasn’t from God. It was nothing more than Joseph’s subconscious, telling him what he wanted to hear: Mary’s preposterous story was true, and he could marry her. It was Joseph psyching himself into faith-by-wishful-thinking. Or they simply deny the dream ever took place: Joseph fathered Jesus himself, or Joseph ignored Mary’s infidelity, married her anyway, and Jesus’s apostles spread the legend of a virgin birth. Either way, non-miraculous.

Cessationists who don’t believe miracles happen anymore, figure this dream was definitely from God—but don’t understand Joseph believed it. They imagine it was some kind of profound mystical experience. Joseph was so euphoric with revelatory warm fuzzy feelings, he couldn’t possibly disbelieve the angel. He had a heavenly dream, plus a bonus rush of heavenly endorphins to confirm the experience.

In real life, people believe their prophetic dreams because they’ve been having them their whole life.

Many of us have prophetic dreams. We just don’t always recognize them as prophetic. When they come true, we think, “Isn’t that an interesting coincidence? I just dreamed about that.” We don’t realize God’s speaking to us through our dreams—and when we ignore them, God tends to stop using them as a means of communication. After all, why text someone who never checks their texts?

For those who do pay attention to their dreams, the ability develops and grows. As it did with Joseph’s namesake in Genesis. And it stands to reason that having a hero from the bible with the same name as you, who heard from God through his dreams, would tend to make you receptive to the same ability when you find it in yourself.

Three times in Matthew we see Joseph dream of angels and obey them. I expect there were many, many other times.

For obvious reasons. Let’s say you never had a prophetic dream before, ever. Then clean out of the blue, you have one of an angel who claims it came straight from God. Will you automatically trust it, and obey everything the angel tells you? Not unless you’re ten kinds of stupid.

You don’t know whether this angel works for God or not. Nor do you know whether this dream, no matter how real it felt, was legitimate revelation. Instead you’d do as anyone does with a weird dream: You’d wonder about it. You might share it with others and talk it over. (Or you might never speak of it, worrying you’ll sound nuts.) You might try to confirm it some way. Or you might still believe God stopped speaking through dreams, and ignore it as nothing more than a really vivid, interesting dream.

If dream-visions never happen to you, there’s no reasonable basis for taking one freak occurrence seriously. But on the other hand, if this happens all the time, you’ve learned by now to listen. You’ll respond to your dreams precisely as we see Joseph did in Matthew. Joseph didn’t second-guess his dreams. He was used to hearing from God.

So now you see some of the reason why God picked Joseph to become Jesus’s father.

The angel cut straight to Joseph’s underlying problem: He didn’t actually plan to put Mary away because of any alleged infidelity. He probably forgave her of that. (Not that there was anything to forgive, but you know.) He planned to end their relationship because he was afraid. Don’t be afraid, ordered the angel. This is God’s doing, like she told you.

We don’t know what Joseph was afraid of. We can speculate, of course. (And be wrong. Like that’s gonna stop us from speculating.) The gossips in the Galilee might’ve been spreading the rumor Joseph was the baby’s father, ’cause he couldn’t contain himself. Or that Joseph wasn’t the father, and he’d been cuckolded. (Celsus, an antichristian philosopher, suggested a Roman named Panthera.)

It’s even possible he believed Mary. The prophecy about her child was confirmed by Elizabeth’s pregnancy, and her parents probably backed up her story. But y’know, the responsibility for something as earth-shaking as a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit: That’s a lot to step up to. How’d you like to become the father of God incarnate?

In any event, Joseph was freaked out, and it’s entirely understandable. But just as God figured Mary was up to this challenge, he also knew Joseph was up to it too. The angel’s message essentially told him to man up and become Jesus’s father.

Jesus’s father. Not his “foster father.”

The angel greeted Joseph as “Joseph bar David,” or “Joseph, son [i.e. descendant] of David,” reminding Joseph of his ancestry, for which reason I’ll get to now.

Matthew 1.21 KWL
“She’ll bear a son, and you’ll declare his name Jesus/‘he saves,’
for he’ll save his people from their sins.”

Too often, Christians think of Joseph as an afterthought—as if God suddenly realized, “Oh yeah, now we gotta deal with Mary’s boyfriend, and get him on board with the plan.” Joseph was always part of it. When the angel ordered him, “You’ll declare his name Jesus,” in essence it was telling him, “You’re his father.” For in this culture, the father named the children.

As Joseph’s son, Jesus would be part of Joseph’s family—which stretched back to King David, who’d been anointed king of Israel by Samuel. This title anointed, Hebrew Mešíakh (English Messiah; Greek Hristós, English Christ), was passed down through David’s descendants. Upon Joseph’s adoption of Jesus, it passed to Jesus. Jesus was Messiah because God had especially anointed him with the Holy Spirit and power, Ac 10.38 but also because he was the adoptive son of the hereditary heir of David.

During the Middle Ages, westerners did away with Jewish and Roman ideas about adoption. They focused on consanguinity, being related by blood. Adoption developed a stigma: If you’re not a blood relation, you don’t inherit; you’re not a real descendant. Our own culture still has this hangup about adoption, which is why Joseph is regularly called Jesus’s “foster father.” (Still not sure why; as his mother’s husband the proper term is stepfather.)

But neither foster father nor stepfather is accurate: Joseph is Jesus’s adoptive father. And to the ancients, adoption counted exactly the same as being a biological parent. You’re related just as much as married spouses are related. In many ways it has greater value than blood relations: The adopted child usually severed ties with blood relations in order to be adopted, just as spouses sever ties in order to belong to one another.

Jesus has no biological father. The Holy Spirit isn’t biological. Our heavenly Father is his father in that God begat God—as the creeds put it, “the Father begat the Son before all ages.” That’s a mystery which has nothing to do with biology, even though we use the biological word “begat.” Jesus was created special. But if anyone fulfilled the role of father in Jesus’s human life, it’d be Joseph. We have no business dismissing Joseph as anything less than Jesus’s dad. God chose him to be Jesus’s dad, as surely as if Joseph was biologically related.

Our Immánuël.

Okay, let’s jump back about seven centuries. Bear with me.

Back round the year 735BC, the Assyrian Empire and northern Israel (“Ephraim”) had joined together to invade southern Israel (“Judah”) as part of the first campaign of the Assyro-Ephraimite War. To encourage Akhaz ben Yotam, king of Jerusalem, God sent Isaiah to tell him their enemies wouldn’t prevail. And Akhaz, not the most devout king, didn’t know how to take the encouragement.

Isaiah 7.10-17 KWL
10 The LORD’s word to Akhaz, saying, 11 “Request a sign from your LORD God,
made deep as a grave, or made high as outer space.”
12 Ahkaz said, “I won’t ask.
I won’t test the LORD.”
13 Isaiah said, “House of David, listen please.
It takes little for you to tire people, because you also tire God.
14 For this, my Master himself is giving you a sign.
Look, a pregnant maiden gave birth to a son.
She declared his name Immánuël/‘God with us.’
15 He’ll eat curds and honey,
and learn to reject evil and choose good.
16 But before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good,
the nations you fear will be laid waste before the face of two kings.
17 The LORD is bringing upon you, your people, and your father’s house days which haven’t been
since the days before Ephraim turned away from Judah to Assyria’s king.”

Meaning the days before Ephraim had joined the Assyrian Empire, when there was relative peace in the region.

So basically, a boy would be conceived, born, go through the terrible twos, achieve a basic understanding of good and bad—and within this timeframe, both Ephraim and Syria would be out of Akhaz’s hair. And as it turned out, the war lasted no longer than four years. Akhaz gave the king of Assyria, Tukultī-apil-Esharra (Hebrew, Tiglat Pileser) a whole bunch of money to leave Judah alone. He raided God’s temple in order to pay the tribute. 2Ki 16.5-9 Likely not the way God intended to do it, but Akhaz didn’t have the best track record with God, and figured God helps those who help themselves… thus achieving God’s prophecy in his own way.

Okay, so what does this story have to do with Jesus? Nothing.

Wait, what? So why’d Matthew quote from Isaiah? Because Jesus fulfilled this prophecy:

Matthew 1.22-23 KWL
22 All this happened so the Lord’s word through the prophet could be fulfilled,
saying, 23 “Look, the maiden will have a child in the womb,
and they will declare his name Immanúël, which is translated ‘God with us.’” Is 7.14

Contrary to popular belief, fulfillment doesn’t mean “bring to reality something which was predicted.” I mean yeah, it means that nowadays, because everybody’s been using it wrong for centuries. But pliró’o/“to fill,” or as we often translate it fulfill, means to present a fuller example of that story.

Immánuël’s name meant “God with us.” Well, Jesus really is God with us: He’s God incarnate. He’s God. Whereas little Immánuël back in the eighth century was only named that. He wasn’t God incarnate. Jesus is. It’s one of those interesting similarities that’re so coincidental, people conclude God is somehow involved in it. And what’s to say he’s not? Jesus’s life reflects this story better than the original, in a more profound and complete way. That’s why Matthew quoted Isaiah.

I know; this interpretation really bugs people. ’Cause it sounds really impressive to claim, “Isaiah spoke of Jesus 800 years before the fact!” (And he still did! Read Isaiah 53 sometime.) Some of ’em actually know the Immánuël story isn’t a prediction of Jesus, yet they’ll still quote it as if it is. They’d rather be impressive than tell the truth. Really, I don’t know what to do with such liars.

But all this bible quote is really saying, is Jesus is our Immánuël. Not the original. It’s like saying a ballplayer is “this generation’s Hank Aaron.” Not the original, but just as impressive or good. Maybe even better, like Jesus.

Since Jesus is still alive, he’s every generation’s Immánuël… which is kinda cool for the original Immánuël, to be immortalized by being compared to our Master. Good for him.

Joseph’s obedience.

Matthew 1.24-25 KWL
24 Rising from sleep, Joseph did the Lord’s angel commanded him.
He accepted his woman, 25 but didn’t “know” her
till she birthed a son, and Joseph declared his name Jesus.

So Joseph obediently kept Mary as his fiancée. You see, had he broken their engagement, Mary’s parents would likely have found someone else to marry their pregnant daughter. Stand-up people like that aren’t all that hard to find.

But had Mary been paired off with another guy, it wouldn’t necessarily have been someone with all Joseph’s qualities. Namely someone who heard from God on a regular basis—and more importantly, obeyed. Someone who’d be conscientious about keeping her a virgin for the sake of the Virgin Birth.

(Roman Catholics, and most Orthodox churches, believe Joseph never had sex with Mary—despite what Matthew implies, despite the Jewish definition of marriage necessitating sexual activity, and despite Jesus’s siblings elsewhere in the gospels. Mk 6.3 But I won’t debate this here.)

Joseph is so often wrongly depicted as some hapless schmo who found himself ensnared in God’s master plan, and just shrugged and went along with it. But on the contrary: He had a big role, and stepped up to it. He became Messiah’s father.

He, like every other devout Jew of his era, knew Messiah would someday come to save his people. And now he heard it directly from the angel: This Jesus, this son of Mary, now this son of his, was the very long-expected Messiah they hoped for. That knowledge would fire up any believer. That zeal explains Joseph’s every action afterward. Look at him that way. You’ll gain a much better appreciation for Jesus’s dad.