While Mary was engaged to Joseph she found out she was expecting a child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph decided to break his engagement to Mary quietly. However, an angel appeared to him in a dream, telling him to marry Mary. The angel said that Mary would have a son, whom they were to name Jesus, “Because he will save his people from their sins.”
These events fulfil what had been predicted in prophecy. When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel told him to do.
Marriage - In New Testament times, a couple would be betrothed (pledged to be married) before getting married. This was similar to an engagement, although more legally binding. A court procedure was needed to break a betrothal. This explains why Matthew says that Joseph decided to divorce Mary quietly, when they were not yet married. In first century Palestine it was considered a disgrace for a woman/girl to have sex before she was married – and even more of a disgrace if she became pregnant. She would be regarded as bringing shame to her family and may well be rejected by them.
The Messiah – David was Israel’s greatest king. During David’s reign, the people enjoyed peace and wealth. After David their lives were never quite as good and sometimes they had to endure slavery and persecution. The people believed that God would not desert them. He would send them a saviour who would be descended from David, but even greater than him. This person was given the title ‘The Messiah’, meaning the 'anointed one' or 'chosen one'. Many Old Testament prophets spoke of this Messiah – he would be a mighty king, a ruler and a saviour. He would also suffer unjustly for the sake of others. Many people recognised Jesus as this Messiah. The title ‘Christ’ is Greek and means the same as Messiah (a Hebrew word).
Understanding the text
Matthew describes Joseph as “a righteous man”. Joseph does not want to subject Mary to public disgrace, even though at this stage he believes she must have been unfaithful to him. Joseph is kind and considerate.
An angel appears to Joseph in a dream, telling him that the child Mary is expecting is conceived through the Holy Spirit and that Joseph should marry Mary as planned. Joseph is obedient to God’s wishes.
A stone carving depicting an angel coming to Joseph in his dreams
The passage gives many important clues about the identity of this child.
He is God’s son as his conception is through the Holy Spirit.
He will be the Messiah, the promised saviour the Jews have been waiting for. This is shown by the fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy in the Old Testament. Isaiah prophesied about the Messiah, “The Virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son.” This has been fulfilled with Jesus.
The prophet Isaiah uses the title ‘Immanuel’ for this saviour. It means ‘God with us’ and is very appropriate for Jesus. The gospel writers show how Jesus was ‘God with us’ – everything he said and did showed the power of God.
The angel tells Joseph that the name Jesus is to be given to the child. Jesus is the Greek form of the name Joshua, which means ‘the Lord saves’. This indicates the future identity of Jesus – he will save people from their sins.