Mary and Joseph

December 4, 2012

by Peter Amsterdam

Audio length: 10:09

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In the previous podcast we looked at the four Old Testament women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy in the book of Matthew who had some anomalies in their relationships. Mary, Jesus’ mother, the fifth woman in the Lord’s genealogy, also falls into the out-of-the-norm category.

The world in which Mary grew up was substantially different from our world today. Women married much younger, usually between 12 and 16 years old. Men were expected to marry at about 16. Marriages in that day necessitated financial negotiations between the husband-to-be and the father of the bride. The first step toward marriage was the betrothal. A couple became betrothed when the man gave the woman either a letter or a piece of money, no matter how small, directly or through a messenger. It was also required that he expressly state, before witnesses, that he intended to make the woman his wife.

At the time of the betrothal the marriage contract was written and agreed upon. This was mainly a contract regarding finances and goods that the bride’s father would give the groom. These funds and items would remain the property of the wife, but the husband had exclusive rights to use them and any increase that came from them. However, if he divorced his wife, these things reverted to her possession. The dowry would also be agreed upon at this time. The dowry would become the husband’s property, but if he divorced his wife, he would have to repay it to her. The contract also covered the amount that would be given to the wife if her husband died or divorced her. Getting betrothed was a major commitment and was legally binding. Once the woman was betrothed, she was legally considered the man’s wife. However, she remained living in her father’s house for up to a year, and there were no sexual relations during this time. Breaking a betrothal required a divorce. If the husband died, the woman would be considered a widow. If a betrothed woman slept with another man, it was considered adultery, and according to the Mosaic law both of them could be stoned to death.[1] The actual marriage ceremony happened later, and it was at that time that the bride moved in with her husband.

It was within Mary’s betrothal period, after the contract had been made with Joseph, that she was visited by the angel Gabriel, who told her she had found favor with God and would conceive a son who would be the Son of the Most High. She asked how she could conceive, since she was a virgin. Gabriel told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and the power of the Most High would overshadow her. Gabriel was revealing to her that her pregnancy would be from God and would have nothing to do with a man.[2] That the Holy Spirit, which is the power of the Most High, would cause her to become pregnant in a manner that was only possible by a creative work of God.

Mary clearly had a decision to make. If she agreed to allow what the angel was saying, she knew there would be trouble ahead. She was going to be pregnant during her betrothal period, before she was living with her husband. Joseph’s natural assumption would be that she had cheated on him with another man and he would be hurt, angry, embarrassed, and would divorce her. She would also run the risk of being stoned to death.

Even if the discovery of her pregnancy didn’t lead to her stoning, everyone in town would know she was pregnant, she would be disgraced, and would be considered an adulteress. If she consented to what the angel was saying, she was, at the very least, going to devastate her husband, seriously damage her reputation, bring shame to her parents and family, and harm her relationship with her village community.

Mary had a choice to make, a choice with serious repercussions. Like the four Old Testament women before her, there would be something anomalous or scandalous about her union. But like them, she would play a role in bringing the Messiah into the world. Mary chose to accept the consequences when she said, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.[3] This was a huge leap of faith on her part.

And it did have repercussions. Joseph was devastated when he found out she was pregnant. Scripture says that he considered these things, he thought on them, he mulled them over. The Greek word used for considered has its root in the word thymos (thoo mas), which means “passion, angry, anger boiling up.”

On finding out that Mary was pregnant, his natural response would be one of anger, of feeling betrayed, of wondering who she had slept with, why she had done so, and what he should do. He had no reason to think anything other than that she had been unfaithful to him. He knew he hadn’t gotten her pregnant. In his mind she had clearly broken her marriage vows and had committed adultery. Joseph was a normal guy, so of course he’d be angry and hurt.

But Scripture says he was a just man. He didn’t want to make a public example of her or disgrace her, and therefore made the decision to divorce her quietly. He was angry, yet he was able to turn his anger into mercy and grace.

It was after he made the decision to divorce but not to expose Mary that he had the dream in which an angel told him that the child was from the Holy Spirit and that he shouldn’t fear to take Mary as his wife. Joseph had to make a decision at that point: should he believe the dream? If he did, people would still suspect that the child wasn’t his, as it would be born early, and he’d have to live with people making comments behind his back.

Like Mary, Joseph had to take a step of faith. God showed him what to do and he had to make a choice to believe and trust God or not. Thankfully he had the faith and courage to believe and act upon what God had showed him.

Joseph knew that he wasn’t the biological father of the child, but in those times when a father stated a child was his, and when the father named the child, the child was legally his offspring. Because Joseph was a direct descendant of King David, his marriage to Mary put Jesus in the ancestral line of King David, just as the Old Testament prophecies said He would be.

These two young people both made difficult decisions for God. They were each faced with a huge personal dilemma. Mary chose to do what God asked of her at great risk to her life and reputation, and knowing that it was going to hurt the one she loved. Joseph was hit full force with the fact that his wife-to-be was pregnant and the child wasn’t his, experiencing the feelings of betrayal, anger, and confusion. He first decided to protect her life by divorcing her quietly, and then after the dream, decided to go forward with the marriage. Both of them showed great faith and courage. Both chose to follow God in spite of the risks. By doing so, they made it possible for God to use them to fulfill His promise that through Abraham’s and King David’s offspring, He would bless the world.

And how did that happen? By God the Son entering the world through a miraculous conception. And how did that happen? The angel Gabriel told Mary that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and the power of the Most High would overshadow her; therefore her child would be the Son of God.[4]

Of course, no one knows exactly how this happened any more than anyone knows exactly how God created the universe. What we do know is that God created a human being with two natures, divine and human, who was fully God and fully man. It had never happened before nor has it since. Mary became pregnant without the agency of a man. Luke simply says that the Holy Spirit, the power of God, came upon Mary and overshadowed her. He used the same word, overshadowed, when writing about the transfiguration of Christ when he said that a cloud overshadowed them and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My Son, My chosen One; listen to Him.”[5] The Spirit of God overshadowed Mary and through a creative act brought forth the chosen one, the God-man, Jesus Christ.

It was through Joseph’s willingness to follow what God showed him that Mary’s child was born the son of David. It was through Mary’s willingness to yield to what God asked of her that she bore the Son of God. And Jesus, the Son of God, yielded to what His Father asked of Him, and made it possible for humanity to be redeemed.

Christmas is a time of joy as we celebrate the birth of our Redeemer. It’s a celebration of God’s greatest gift to humanity. Please do what you can this Christmas to bring Jesus into the lives of others, through your words or deeds, through acts of kindness and mercy. Be open to however God may lead you and to whomever He may lead you. You might find yourself in a situation where it might be risky, difficult, or embarrassing to express the meaning behind Christmas; you might be shy or unsure how it will be received. You might feel that you’ll do a lousy job of presenting the amazing gift of Jesus to someone else. If you find yourself feeling that way, or somehow struggling to act on a nudge from God, remember Mary and Joseph. God sometimes calls us to step out by faith, to follow how His Spirit is leading, and to take a risk in order to bring Jesus’ love to others.


Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1997.

Green, Joel B., McKnight, Scot. Editors. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1992.

Pentecost, Dwight J. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996.

[1] Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, 367–68.

[2] Luke 1:35 ESV.

[3] Luke 1:38 ESV.

[4] Luke 1:34–35.

[5] Luke 9:34–35.