18Now this is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19Joseph, her fiancé, being a just man, decided to break the engagement quietly, so as not to disgrace her publicly. (Matthew 1:18-19; NLT)
The Bible tells us that Joseph was a just or righteous man. This means that Joseph was a lover of the Law. In a predominantly religious culture like Israel was at this time it was very important to look like a righteous person, to follow the Law. For Joseph to be called a righteous man,or as the NLT translates, a just man means that he was zealous for God’s Law. While he may not have the in depth training a Pharisee like the Apostle Paul would have, he would know what the law said and would follow it the best that he could.
For this reason I would suggest that a better way to translate this passage would be: Joseph, her fiancé, although a just man… The Old Testament Law is very clear on what is to happen to a person caught in adultery: they were to be stoned. The evidence of a pregnant Mary told Joseph that she had been unfaithful, and a righteous man would want to make sure the Law was obeyed.
On this side of Jesus we have a different understanding of what it means to be righteous therefore it is hard for us to picture a righteous man as a one who would allow such a inhumane act to take place. The reality is that for the first readers of the Gospel they would have understood very well what the Law required and what it meant to be righteous. This is exactly the place I think we can catch the best glimpse of why God chose Joseph to be the father of Jesus, to person who would have the greatest responsibility in teaching Him about the Law.
Joseph knew the Law and the penalty which it demanded, but he also had compassion. He was not going to subject the woman he loved to public ridicule, but neither could he accept her infidelity. He would allow her to going on living, but Joseph would not let her become his wife. Joseph compassion was greater than immediate satisfaction of the legal requirements. Although Joseph was a lover of the Law he was also compassionate.
God sees our infidelity, which is real unlike Mary’s, and He has compassion on us. He doesn’t what to see us publicly disgraced and go through agony of Hell. Instead God suspends the immediate requirements for justice and allows us to go on living. We deserve death, but God allows us to live.
When God’s message, through an angel, arrives to Joseph he is faced with a decision. Joseph could continue on with his original plan and divorce Mary or he could obey and take Mary home as his wife. The first option had much appeal. He would be accepted as righteous man, he would get the business from other righteous men, he could marry and have an honorable family, and he could become an elder and respected member of the community. To marry Mary would cause him much disgrace. He would lose the business of the righteous (is it any wonder why Mary and Joseph continued to stay in Bethlehem after Jesus birth?), people would whisper about him and his family, and he would never be looked on as respectable member of the community. He would be disgraced. But there was only one way for Mary to be cared for and Jesus to have the home that He needed.
God could have allowed us to live and postpone our judgment until we died naturally. He didn’t have to save us. The other option was for God to step into history and become the sacrifice we needed to be saved from our sins. For us to be saved from disgrace God had to be disgraced. For us to live Jesus had to die.
There is a God-like characteristic present in Joseph. He was a lover of the Law who understood compassion, mercy, and grace. It is no wonder that it was Joseph God selected to teach and raise Jesus. A Pharisee would have been too legalistic and a sinner too lax, but Joseph had just the right mix needed to be the father of the Savior.