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. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” (Matthew 1:18-19 ESV)
Today’s text reveals three things about Joseph in the extraordinary circumstances he and Mary faced. First, he was a just man. Second, he was unwilling to shame Mary. Third, he resolved to quietly divorce her. Let’s individually examine each of these statements.
First, Joseph was a just man. To be just (δίκαιος; dikaios) means to be righteous. In other words, Joseph was a man who wanted to do what was right; not only in the sight of God but also in the sight of the Word of God. He was a true believer.
Second, Joseph did not want to shame Mary. To shame (παραδειγματίζω; paradeigmatizō) meant to make Mary a public example. This suggests the act and observance of public stoning to death for adultery (Deut. 22:23-24). He did not want Mary executed; publicly or privately. This was because he loved her.
Third, he resolved to quietly divorce her. Resolved (βούλομαι; boulomai) means to wish or desire. To divorce her (ἀπολύω; apolyō) meant to set Mary free from the betrothal. He made this painful but gracious decision.
“Stoning was the legal prescription for this sort of adultery (Deut. 22:23–24). Joseph’s righteousness meant he was also merciful; thus, he did not intend to “disgrace” Mary. The phrase “a just man” is a Hebraism suggesting that he was a true believer in God who had thereby been declared righteous, and who carefully obeyed the law (see Gen. 6:9). To “divorce her” would be to obtain a legal divorce (Matt. 19:8–9; Deut. 24:1), which according to the Jewish custom was necessary in order to dissolve a betrothal (Matt. 1:18),” explains Dr. John MacArthur.
“The placement of Joseph’s family at the end of the third set of fourteen generations (Matt. 1:16) tells us that they will be the people God uses to restore the kingdom. Joseph is the adopted father of the Son who fulfills ultimately all of the Lord’s promises. Righteous Joseph is a fine choice to raise the Christ, for he loves and delights in God’s law,” explains Dr. R.C. Sproul.
According to the custom in Joseph’s day (circa 4 b.c.), he and Mary would be engaged for a full year (without living together), and would require a legal divorce to dissolve their bond. Mary became pregnant during this period (v. 18), which implied there had been unlawful sexual relations before the proper time. Joseph knew he was not guilty of this sin. Circumstances indicated that Mary was.
Joseph decided to initiate a divorce to preserve his righteousness and good name. He also did not want to put Mary to shame. He chose to pursue a private divorce; an acceptable provision according to the law of Moses (Num. 5:11–31). This avoided embarrassing Mary publicly (Matt. 1:19).
However, the LORD would sovereignly inform Joseph of His will. The LORD’s purpose would supersede Joseph’s and also be in harmony with God’s Word. The same holds true for believers in Christ today.
Soli deo Gloria!