Message: The ABC’s of Righteousness | Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25 | Speaker: Stephen Choy
I’ve told you before that I tend to argue in a way that puts people down. I don’t, historically speaking, just like to win the fight, I like letting you know that I’ve won. And this, unfortunately, was no different in how I used to step into arguments or disagreements with my wife when we’d just been married.
The thing is, in a lot of these arguments, I didn’t necessarily have the wrong position. In fact, there were times when I knew, and maybe even deep down, she knew, that I was right. But what made these conversations so poisonous, to my shame, wasn’t that one of us was right and the other was wrong, it was that in my rightness, all I wanted, was to mercilessly show my wife her wrongness. I cared more about my position over her than my posture towards her. I cared more about being right than righteous.
But, what I want to communicate to you this morning is the opposite, that our posture, as Christians, ought to be more pronounced in our dealings with others than our position. We ought to value our righteousness more than our rightness. Now, don’t get me wrong, we are to value being right, especially in our convictions as Christians. We are to value having words that speak the truth, but we must also know that truth—that being right—is always either validated or corrupted based upon our response in posture—our righteousness.
So, today, what we learn from our passage is not only what the right position looks like but also what a posture of true righteousness ought to be, and the first way we’re to value our righteousness is by going out—by adopting—the outcast.
1) By Adopting the Outcast
Read with me in Matthew 1:18 and 20-21. TWoL: 18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother, Mary, had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit . . . 20 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Let me say very quickly here that in Matthew 1:18 we get a second creation account. The words that start our verse, Τοῦ δὲ ⸂Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ⸃ ἡ ⸀γένεσις οὕτως ἦν, means directly, the Genesis or the origin of Jesus Christ was as follows. And what the author is doing for us is giving us an imitation of the first book of the Bible. Remember, for those of you who have read Genesis—recently, a long time ago, or maybe never before—Genesis 1 and 2 are two separate accounts of the same creation story. The first chapter is a broad overview, and the second is an intimate, zoomed in explanation of what happens, particularly with the creation of man and woman.
Matthew does the exact same thing here regarding Christ. The first part of chapter 1 is a broad overview of his lineage, and the second half of the chapter zooms in to give us a personal account of how he brings a new creation about.
And what is it that we learn about Jesus in the first verse of our passage? We learn that he’s adopted. This is actually something we find out in verse 16, which the pattern throughout the genealogy of verses 2-16a is, “this man is the father of this man and this man is the father of this man.” Translated directly, it reads, “this man begot this man, and this man begot this man.” But then we get to 16b, and suddenly the wording changes. It’s not Joseph begets Jesus. It’s Joseph, the husband of Mary, from whom—the whom is feminine possessive, which means it’s referring to Mary—not Joseph—from whom Jesus was born.
This fact is reiterated in our passage, verse 18—before they—as in Joseph and Mary—came together, which doesn’t just mean sexual union, but generally—before they lived together, before they built any sort of home together—Mary was already found to be with child. And yet, as we’re told in verses 20 and 21, Joseph, as the angel of the Lord visits, is instructed to marry Mary anyway, and he’s instructed to name the child, Jesus.
There’s so much happening here that I have to go over everything rather quickly, so I ask that you try and bear with me as best you can. First, there’s an allusion here in what’s happening to Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, to the Joseph of Genesis. This comes not only from the fact that this Joseph in Matthew is receiving revelation from God through dreams, but it’s through these dreams that Joseph is tasked to literally go out and save those who are helpless and outcast. This is what Jacob and his descendants were in Genesis when they came to Joseph in Egypt asking for provision during a famine.
Through Matthew’s Joseph, God is fulfilling his depiction of Israel and its vulnerability. There is no Israel and future hope of redemption from Egypt in Exodus unless the Joseph of Genesis gives them food and quarter. Through Joseph of Genesis, God makes a way for the Exodus. In the same way, through Joseph of Matthew, God makes a way for the greater Exodus—the greater salvation of his people—through the cross.
Second, Joseph’s acts of adoption and faithfulness in his betrothal to Mary are utterly staggering because not only are they outcasts, and not only does Joseph have no obligation to Mary or to Jesus in her womb due to the fact that she’s found to be pregnant—which legally nullifies their betrothal, but to do this implies two things. The first is that it shows Joseph’s willingness to let his name be dragged through the mud.
See, to go through with the marriage at this point would be tantamount to admitting that you had been indecent with this woman prior to formalizing the union, which would symbolize, to the world, that he was an untrustworthy and morally bankrupt person. A man, in their eyes, that cared nothing for their laws or traditions, and thus, would have been met with an equal disdain.
The second implication is that by Joseph’s acts of adoption and faithfulness to Mary, he is risking not only everything he is, but everything that he has because if by some off chance that this boy really is someone else’s kid—if his identity is not what the angel claims it to be—all of his property—all that now remains to his besmirched name—will belong to someone else—to another family because Jesus would be his heir as his firstborn son.
If it turned out that Jesus was the son of another man, upon Joseph’s death, that man could come in and claim Joseph’s inheritance as his own—do with it as he willed, including kicking out Joseph’s children and wife. What’s more is that, if it turned out that this other man belonged to another tribe—a tribe not of Judah, Joseph and his connection to the tribe of Judah would be effectively erased because not only would this become that man’s property, it would become a part of his tribes’ property. Judah would be robbed of some of its inheritance.
This is how property transfer worked, and this is why, when you read through the laws in the Pentateuch, especially on the laws about adultery and sexual immorality, they seem so strange or so anti-women. Because if a woman cheated, and her husband didn’t know it, or didn’t have a way to find out, the result could be cataclysmic. And although, Israel was technically under the rule of Rome by Joseph’s time, Israelites still believed this to be their land—they believed it to be the fulfillment of everything God had promised to them through Abraham. So, to risk it all upon this child—to risk the thought of adopting a son of another man—meant not only risking his own name but risking the undoing of God’s promise. It threatened to spurn God and to scorn his centuries-awaited gift.
All this to become the father of a kid he has no ability to truly identify on his own. He has no personal idea who, or whose, this child is. And yet, we find out that Joseph not only takes Mary to be his wife, but he also names the boy Joshua, which we translate from the Greek as Jesus, which means God saves. I’ll talk more about the name in our third point, but this very act of naming the boy was an act that symbolized, in that day, the truth, affirmation, and legitimacy of his fathership. He takes in, by faith, one whom he does not know on any intimate level and gives him everything that he is and all that he has.
How much more staggering, then, is it, brothers and sisters, that God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—knows exactly and intimately who we are, where we come from, and what we bring to the table, which is nothing. And yet, in his position as almighty, omniscient, and righteous God, he postures himself to give us everything by knowingly giving up everything. It wasn’t a risk or a gamble to him. He knew the cost. He knew what would result. And still, he does it anyway. He brings us out of our lamentable state as outcasts and makes us heirs of promise.
Is this not reason enough for us, in response, to go out and adopt into our own midst the outcast, the downtrodden, the helpless, the broken—worse yet, the wicked and vile sinner. To show them and plead with them a salvation that comes to us not as one who beats you into its submission and forces you to its servitude—like so many fathers have done and still do, but one who has counted the cost himself, seen the iniquity of your heart, and has said anyway, “I will pay it because I love you. Today, all that I am and all that I have is now yours,”—to be clothed in the righteous garment of His Spirit and to be called by name, sons and daughters of the living God.
True righteousness is this—not only pretending to care for the outcast but giving your life humbly and selflessly—all that you are and all that you have for those you owe nothing to and who have nothing to give you in return. It is laying down your right to be right—to be certain—to be secure in yourself—so that others might know the security you’ve found in another—so that others might know the security you’ve received in God. Care more about true righteousness—a righteousness that exceeds your perceived right to your own life.
2) By Bearing Mercy
Read along with me from Matthew 1:19. TWoL: 19.And her husband, Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”
Why does Matthew focus so much on Joseph here? We know him to be a lowly, possibly quiet, man based upon his actions in this passage. He’s a carpenter—a descendant of David who has made no notable contribution to his tribe other than being found sufficient to be betrothed to Mary. And that’s about all I can say about him. Here’s where I want to introduce you to something that Matthew does a lot of in this book—something that changed my own reading of the Bible called echoes or pre-echoes of Scripture.
The author of our gospel, here, by giving us this character description of Joseph is teaching us how to read the Bible in the New Testament so that when we go back and read the Old Testament, we might see these echoes more clearly. He’s using the life of Joseph as an echo, or as a pre-echo, for what we’re to see in the life of his own, adopted, beloved son. Joseph is a prefiguration—an echo of Jesus. He’s a nobody, a hard-worker, perhaps, and a son of David—nothing much, in the eyes of the world, is to be expected of him but to live the life he’s been given and to die the death that awaits him.
But Matthew wants to include two more informative details for us about Joseph that serve as the ground or the reasons as to why he performs his subsequent action of divorcing Mary in secret. The first detail is that he is a righteous or just man.
On the one hand, to be just or righteous at that time meant that he was a man of the law. And what we know about the law is that for a woman caught in adultery, she is supposed to be made an example of either through being stoned or through being flogged and made a spectacle of as she underwent her divorce proceedings. Joseph had every right to do this to Mary. It would have already been sympathetic to spare her from the stoning, but the public nature of her shame would have left Mary without a husband for the rest of her life. She would never have another child unless she prostituted herself. She would be, undoubtedly, separated from any form of respectable community for the rest of her life, and Joseph knows this.
This, of course, leads us to the other hand and the other grounding detail that Matthew gives us about this man, and that is that he’s unwilling to disgrace her, namely, he desires to show her compassion. He desires to show her mercy.
Thus, the question we have to ask ourselves is how can this man remain both just AND merciful towards Mary and this child in her womb? And if we turned through pages of the book of Numbers 5 as well as in other Jewish texts called the Mishnah, we would find that divorce from an adulterer or adulteress is allowed in the presence—not of the public—but, instead, before two witnesses. This, then, would have allowed Mary to leave Joseph without disgrace and go to the man who had impregnated her and marry him quickly to avoid any further notice of impropriety. In other words, it would have saved Mary and her son from a life that, for all Joseph and these witnesses knew, she deserved.
The thing, however, about this Numbers 5 clause is that it comes with a price. People would never get to know why Joseph did what he did. He would never get the closure of justice that he, under the law, deserved. He would always be questioned on his end for his integrity and his failure to uphold his oath to Mary. Said another way, the only means for Joseph to be both just and merciful towards Mary and the baby was to bear at least part of the shame and the humiliation of her perceived indiscretion upon himself.
This, then, is how echoes work. They give us a glimpse of what we can expect in the coming person and work of Jesus. Joseph, of course, is not the Christ, rather he’s a foretaste—his mercy is constrained to what is permitted under the law—a law that he knows he cannot, on his own, supersede or re-interpret. Remember, for all he knows, this woman has sinned with another man, and it would be an afront to the law for him to go ahead, now, and marry her.
Yet, in his equal devotion to Mary, he desires to be generous in what mercy he can afford her. In other words, he both satisfies the requirements of the law while simultaneously attempting to save those who are accused of breaking the law, and he accomplishes this in himself. One might go so far as to say he is both just in the law and justifier of the one condemned by it.
Does that phrase sound familiar to us? Joseph precedes the one who was to come—the one who came to show his righteousness at the present and perfect time, so that he, the fulfillment of the echo, might be just and justifier of all who have faith in him. This is why Matthew focuses on Joseph not only because of his humility in adopting Jesus as his own, begotten son at great risk to himself, but because he displays a true Christlike righteousness in bearing pain-filled mercy towards God’s eternally begotten Son and his mother. Not only will Jesus be his legal heir, but, to a degree, Jesus will also be an heir to his character.
Yet, what does this mean for us? Well, I hope it’s rather obvious as Joseph was a pre-echo, we are now the post. Our righteousness ought to exceed that of Joseph’s. Why? Because Jesus has come. He has justly meted out the requirement of the law and paid the price of our penalty so that by his propitious blood we might be justified in his mercy. And in so doing, we are now able to bear mercy towards sinners, those who deserve mercy no more than we did, not from a position of one who has any rights—or who is ever right in himself—but from a posture that acknowledges that any rightness that we have has been given to us from another.
True righteousness is this, then: one who adopts the outcast at great risk to himself, one who bears the burden of mercy towards sinners and suffers the consequence of the law for their sake, and one who considers the call. (Care More About True Righteousness Than the Need to Be Right . . .)
3) By Considering the Call
Read along with me from Matthew 1:21-25. TWoL: 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
I’ve already mentioned that by naming the child within Mary, Joseph acknowledges and affirms his fathership over this boy. But what of his name? Well, the first thing we’re told is that Joseph is to call him Jesus—the Greek translation of the Hebrew name, Joshua. What’s more is that he’s also given the reason as to why to name the child this—because of what it means: he will save his people from their sins.
Of course, naming his son this would evoke certain allusions or echoes to those who were named Joshua before him—the most significant of which was the successor of Moses—the one who saved Israel from its wandering and brought them into the land of promise. But what is significant here is this addition to the definition of the name, specifically, that he isn’t just come to save his people and bring them back into right ownership of their land and reestablish the law, like the previous Joshua did, or as they might expect. We’re told he’s coming to do something they likely didn’t expect.
See, Israel has been awaiting a Messiah, but they’ve been awaiting a political messiah not an eschatological—eternal life-giving Messiah, and certainly not a Messiah who would die on their behalf to save them from their sins. So, while there are clear allusions to Joshua from the Old Testament being drawn here, Matthew means to extract even more for us from the literal meaning of the name Yeshua or Yehoshua, which means God saves or God is the Saviour.
And where in the Bible do we see the theme of Yahweh saving his people the most? Well, that’s likely in the Psalms, isn’t it? In fact, Psalm 130:8—a psalm about waiting for the Lord’s coming redemption—says, specifically, “He [YHWH] will redeem Israel from all its sins.” So, Jesus isn’t just to be another Joshua, David, Abraham, or Moses—a deliverer from earthly problems. He is meant to be God’s answer to their divine problem. He is meant to be the deliverer of God’s people to God himself.
All of this might seem like enough to motivate Joseph into adopting Jesus and showing mercy to Mary, but what then does Matthew do? He brings in his first fulfillment quotation. He takes a passage from the Old Testament and says that Jesus will fulfill that text. We’ll see five of these fulfillment quotations in these first few chapters of Matthew but understanding this first one is of utmost importance because it’ll set the tone for how we read and understand all that come after it.
So, what is Matthew doing here? Well, he’s quoting from the prophet Isaiah’s writings in chapter 7:14, which reads in part, in the English Standard Version, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and. Bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” I’ll also note that the name Immanuel or its meaning, “God with us,” is also used in Isaiah 8:8 and 10. And to properly understand Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah, here, we have to understand the context of Isaiah at the time of his writing.
We find out that the prophet gives us these words in the midst of a struggle between the King of Judah, King Ahaz, and two other kings in the north, and God comes to the King of Judah and tells him, through the prophet, to ask for a sign that God will destroy these kings to the north for him. But King Ahaz responds arrogantly saying that he would not bother God by asking him (really meaning that he does not want to ask him). So, the prophet declares that God will still defeat the two northern enemies, but due to the king’s arrogance another force, Assyria, will come and desecrate Judah.
And in the midst of that prophecy, Isaiah tells the king that the sign to seal this promise from God will come in the form of a baby born from an almah (that’s the Hebrew word—an almah), which doesn’t mean virgin per se. Rather, it means, more accurately, “young maiden of a marriageable age, who most likely is a virgin.” And from this young maiden will be born a son who will be named Immanuel—God with us.
Now, many people interpret the baby to be King Hezekiah—King Ahaz’s son, but it is more likely a reference to the prophet’s son, Mahar-Shalal-Hash-Baz, born from Isaiah’s wife who was a young maiden, likely virgin before conception, although obviously not after, serving in the Jewish synagogue. We know it is likely this child and not Hezekiah because of the later uses of the word Immanuel in chapter 8:8 and 10 and the linked reference by the prophet to Mahar-Shalal-Hash-Baz in 8:18.
I’m giving you all of these details to tell you that in the prophet’s record of them, they’re being recorded as history and not prophecy. Do you notice that? The prophecy of the child is fulfilled—whether you believe it to be Hezekiah or Isaiah’s son—the sign was given. The two northern enemies were destroyed, and Assyria did come in and desecrate Judah.
So, what is Matthew doing by saying the birth of Jesus fulfills the words of the prophet, when the words of the prophet were, in his time, already fulfilled? He’s showing us how the Bible works. He’s revealing to us how salvation history is moving towards a goal where things before are echoes of things to come. He’s telling us that Jesus is that goal.
Isaiah 7:14 is fact. It’s talking about a young woman who gives birth to a son as a sign of God’s coming deliverance and judgment of his people. But Matthew goes and takes that historical fact and shows how God ups the ante in Jesus not only in his birth from a young maiden who WAS a virgin, but in his birth from a young maiden who IS a virgin, and he was conceived in the young maiden not by the prophet of God through natural means, but by the Holy Spirit who is God through supernatural means.
Now, you might be tempted to stop there and think, “okay, God fulfills the words of the prophet by bringing Israel another saviour.” He’s named Joshua because he will save his people like Joshua did. Or maybe, he’s greater, to an extent, than Joshua because of the additional fact that he will save his people from sin. But let me ask you, how does one go about saving people from sin in the Old Testament? Is it not through the sacrifice and pouring out of unblemished animal blood as a temporary satisfaction for a person’s sin? And how can a man’s blood be sufficient to save all of his people from their sins? Even if he were a great man like Joshua, he would still have sin in himself that pollutes the sacrifice.
Well, this is what Matthew is telling us by quoting from Isaiah 7:14. This man is not just another Joshua, Moses, Abraham, or David. No, he is the fulfillment of the name Immanuel. He is not only a sign to us that God is with us, but he comes, and by the pouring out his blood, he is able to save his people from their sins completely because of who he is. He is God with us—God, himself, has come to save us from our sins. He is not just another Joshua. He is Jesus, Immanuel.
Imagine yourself to be Joseph now, as you wake up, having had this dream. Pre-dream Joseph was already a great guy. He was righteous and merciful—just and justifier—a pre-echo of the righteousness that was to come in the birth of his adopted son. But then he finds out who Jesus is.
And all of a sudden, as his eyes are both literally and figuratively opened—as his heart is given revelation that is beyond his wildest dreams—he goes and does something even crazier than having a limited kind of mercy by secretly divorcing this woman. He goes and actually marries her. He commits himself totally to her. He risks being reviled and persecuted by his community for the rest of his life—to be seen as an improper, immoral, sin-infested man—to be an outcast and outsider forever. Why?
Because, as this boy is born to Mary, remembering who Joseph is—a command keeper—a man devout to the character of God—a man who goes to temple—makes his prayers—a man who is righteous—a man who gets what the law is all about—this Joseph stands there in a posture of what I imagine to be utter awe and reverence, because as he looks down into his arms, he knows that he is the first man on earth—the first person in the history of the universe to look upon and behold the face of God. And in that moment, there is no doubt in Joseph’s mind, as he stands there and thinks, “all that I was and all that I had cannot compare—for you are my Jesus.”
This, then, is true righteousness, brothers and sisters, as those who stand, like Joseph, having received the revelation of who this boy in this woman’s womb was and what he came to do, that our posture might be one of transformed excitement and joy as we run, eyes opened and hearts full, to go and adopt the outcast, knowing there is no risk to ourselves, to willingly bear mercy towards others, acknowledging that one has come to suffer the consequences of our sin in full, and to point them in both word and deed to the one who fulfills all things. And why can we do this? Because Jesus is ours—the Saviour of his people from their sins—God with us.