Thursday, February 17, 2011

Matthew 1:19-21--Just and merciful

And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
(Matthew 1:19-21 ESV)

I have always been encouraged by the man Joseph, husband of Mary. Without any doubt, his character, as shown through the Nativity Story, has been an encouragement and a rebuke to me for a few years now. Reading through Matthew 1, and attempting to spend time meditating on God's Word, I was touched anew by the story of the man whom God chose to be the earthly father of His eternal Son.

Matthew 1:19-21 starts by informing the reader that Joseph was a just man and was unwilling to put Mary to shame. That alone has ministered to me so much, for years. Joseph was a just man, concerned with God's holiness in a more than average sense. He cared about the righteousness of God, the sanctity of the marriage relationship and everything that God required of him. He was a just man. If an orphan was abused, Joseph would do his part. If a widow was wronged, Joseph would make right. I know this because God's inspired Word goes out of the way to let the reader know, Joseph was a just man.

Based on the culture and the understanding of God's Word that Joseph lived under, he had every right to "put Mary to shame". Mary would have a hard time convincing anyone that she did not break her betrothal vows, she was around four months pregnant when it became known to everyone involved that their honeymoon would now include morning sickness and swollen ankles. Joseph, under the Law and the culture, had every right to have his betrothed executed in a brutal, humiliating fashion. Based on the character of Joseph, if the Law of God required this I am most certain he would have obliged. But the Law did not require Joseph to have Mary executed. Joseph was just, but he was also "unwilling to put her to shame".

Joseph was merciful. He had every right to execute justice, swift and severe. Yet he chose to extend mercy-to "divorce her quietly". For years now, this has reminded me so vividly of the relationship I have with God. God is a just God and He had every right to punish me to the full extent of the Law. He had every right to allow me to suffer under His wrath for the rest of eternity because I chose to shake my fist at the Holy, Awesome, Creator and Sustainer of the universe. He had every right to allow me to wallow in my filth, revel in my sin and continue to heap judgment upon myself for the rest of my existence. He is a just God, but He was unwilling to do that. Instead, He heaped my sin, my wretchedness, my vile rebellion upon His willing and able Son. His Son who could bear the wrath of God because He is God. His Son who could atone for my own sins because He had none of His own. God could not sweep my sins under a rug, because He is just, instead poured His wrath against sin and sinners on His Son, because while He is just He is also merciful. This situation with Joseph has always illustrated this truth to me, and in such, has always been a great blessing to me.

This afternoon, however, I began to wonder what made Joseph act in this way. What was going on in Joseph's head? I honestly do not know. I was struck by how the angel interacted with Joseph. I have become accustomed to angels prefacing their message with "Fear Not!!!" When sinful man encounters a sinless being, it has to be terrifying. However, this message was slightly different. This angel said "Do not fear to take Mary as your wife." It stuck out to me. Why would Joseph "fear to take Mary as his wife"? I could see him being annoyed, greatly. I could see him, a just man, being disgusted and angered and indignant. I could not see him being afraid(unless it was because the angel knew how moody and scary pregnant women can be...that warning would be justified, but I really think it is something else).

Allow me to enter the land of speculation. From this point on, feel free to disregard and correct anything that seems contrary to Scripture(actually, that can apply to anything I write or say). May I offer an opinion as to why Joseph would be afraid? Joseph was unwilling to see Mary put to shame. He desired mercy for her. He had no desire to see her punished, shamed, mocked, ridiculed, executed. He was "unwilling to put her to shame". So of what was he afraid? The community? Family? Religious leaders? It seems unlikely that any of these are the case. There seems to be a strong link between his fear of taking Mary as his wife and his being a "just man". Fearing man does not make you just. Fearing(revering, Biblical fear) God, however, most certainly does. I am fully convinced that Joseph was afraid to take Mary as his wife because he felt it would make him unclean and sinful before a holy God. It would have been so easy for him at this point to focus on Mary's "sin". To blame her, to magnify her sin in order to hide his own, falsely maintaining a self-wrought righteousness. To seek vengeance on Mary as a means of minimizing his daily violations of God's perfect Law.

But he did not. He did not focus on Mary's "sin". Instead, he did all that he could to show her mercy. To show her the mercy he desired from his holy, righteous, sin-hating God. Too often when I see sin in my own life I will focus on the sins of others. I will go out of my way to expose their sin for the " good of the Body". Actually, most of the time, I am very quick to confront someone on their sin because I want to do all I can to ignore my own. Too often when I am wronged, I desire and seek vengeance. Maybe not actively, but I guarantee if I hear of something negative happening to someone who hurt me, I feel a bit of "they deserved that". Joseph was "wronged" but he did not seek vengeance.

Joseph was primarily concerned with his own standing before God and the sin, or possibility of sin, in his own life much more than he was concerned with broadcasting the "sin" of another. God's grace in the life of Joseph allowed him to be a just man with a merciful heart, confronting sin in his life with a passion and passionately seeking ways to be merciful to others. This is my desire, to live a life that is defined by being a "just man" and being merciful to those in need of mercy. Only the grace of God can make this possible for me or for anyone but from the example of Joseph we can be certain that this is a very real possibility.