[The following excerpt has been adapted from chapter 20 of Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative, by Russ Ramsey.]
Joseph was a decent man. He didn’t want to shame Mary, though he could have and no one would have blamed him. But he didn’t want to lose her either. What could he do? His bride-to-be was pregnant, and he wasn’t the father. His world was spinning. This burden weighed heavily on his heart, flooding his thoughts and his dreams.
Joseph wasn’t a complicated man. He was honest and hard-working—noble in ancestry and character. He dreamed of one day having a son of his own to teach the family trade. He dreamed of married life. He dreamed of a home of his own. He dreamed of the respect of his community.
But Mary’s condition threatened all of that, waking the young man from his dreams to a harsh reality. He knew the moment approached when he would have to act. And when he considered his options, his heart ached.
One night as he tossed and turned, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. He had come to set something straight. This baby was not forming in Mary’s belly because of anything she had done. This was something God had done—something God was doing, part of the order and structure of his divine purpose.
“She will bear a son, conceived of the Holy Spirit, and you, Joseph, will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:21) There was a purpose in this for both Joseph and Mary—she would bear the child, he would name him, and the child would save them from their sins.
Was this what the prophet Isaiah meant when he foretold that a virgin would conceive and have a son who would be called Immanuel—God with us? (Isa 7:14) This virgin Isaiah spoke of, could this really be his Mary?
The prophet Isaiah had a tough job at a rough time in Israel’s history, and his ministry had become a sober part of every Israelite’s story ever since. God had called Isaiah to relay the news of the Lord’s coming judgment of his people. God had dispatched Assyria to carry his own people out of their homes and away into foreign lands. Babylon would bring a second wave of discipline.
But laced throughout Isaiah’s words flowed a magnificent description of God’s plan to save and redeem this same people who had rebelled against him over and over again. These were the stories Joseph and Mary grew up on, stories of colossal failure and of magnificent hope, stories of judgment and of salvation.
But what would God’s salvation look like? As a boy, Joseph must have listened to the men around his home speculate. Would the people’s ideas of that redemption bear any resemblance to the rescue God actually meant to give? After all, it was an utterly novel thought that this girl who caused his heart to flutter would carry in her womb the Son of God, the promised and coming Savior who could carry the governments of the world on his still-forming shoulders.
Joseph might have recalled God’s great qualifier in Isaiah’s book. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (Isa 53:8) As the heavens are higher than the earth? How much higher is that?
Salvation was such a paradox. The Israelites had ideas of what they thought they needed. For as long as Joseph could remember, God’s people looked to the east for their king to arrive in majesty, convinced they would know him when they saw him.
So why, then, was God quietly sending his angel to a poor teenage girl and her fiancé in the no-account town of Nazareth?
Joseph rehearsed what he could remember from Isaiah, contrasting it with the common ideas he grew up hearing. God’s people expected the Messiah to be known by all upon his arrival. Would God really announce his coming under the cover of darkness? God’s people anticipated a Messiah of unparalleled strength. Would they really be given a fragile, tiny baby? (Isa 7:14) Wouldn’t he inspire the masses? Wouldn’t the people instinctively know to follow him? Or would the true Messiah be, as Isaiah said, one who would be, countless times, rejected? (Isa 53:3)
The people of Israel longed for their suffering and oppression to end with the Savior’s coming. Would he really come to suffer and live a life of affliction himself? Would he really take upon himself the wounds of his children and die under their weight? (Isa 53:5)
As Joseph weighed the implications, he thought of the names the angel used for this baby—Jesus, meaning “God will save,” and Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” Together, these names came together to describe who this baby would be and what he would accomplish—the Savior, God with us.
God was bringing his ancient plan to fruition, a plan forged in the void of the vast expanse that existed before the world was made, and Mary was somehow part of it. So was Joseph. They were a part of it because the baby in Mary’s womb was at the center of it, as he had somehow been since before time. Her son would be the consolation of her people, Israel. He would be their king, and of his kingdom there would be no end. (Isa 9:7)
The angel said, “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 will call him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:20-21)
Joseph woke from his dream and for the first time in a while felt like a man who knew what he was supposed to do. He was supposed to believe. To believe God, and to believe Mary. He was supposed to love her, take care of her, and keep her as safe and secure as he could.
So he married that girl, and together they set out for his hometown to register as a family. And Joseph told Mary, “When he comes, his name will be Jesus,” because the angel said he will save his people from their sins. (Matt 1:24-25)
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).