God of Grace (December 22, 2019)
God of Grace
Have you ever had one of those sleepless nights where you just have so much on your mind that you couldn’t fall asleep? Maybe it’s running through lists in your head making sure you have everything you need for your big trip coming up. Maybe it’s just been an exciting day that you just can’t stop replaying through your mind. Or maybe, something has gone completely wrong and though you lie still, your brain is frantically trying to figure out a solution.
Joseph found himself in the middle of an unwelcomed nightmare. His bride to be was pregnant, and he was not the father. As a righteous man, faithful to the law, he could not go through with the marriage. Yet, he was deeply concerned for Mary. As a merciful man, he could not expose Mary to public disgrace. He was trapped, it seemed, between loving God and his law, and loving others with mercy.
How long did it take for Joseph to fall asleep that night – with broken betrothal promises on his mind? And understand, that betrothal in biblical times is different from modern day engagement practices. Mary and Joseph had already promised their lives to each other as husband and wife and in God’s eyes, that was the beginning of their marriage. According to the custom, though, they would not live together as husband and wife until a certain time period had elapsed. That’s the timeframe Matthew zeroes in on. They had made their marriage promises, but not yet come together. They were pledged to be married, and Matthew even uses marriage terms – calling Joseph “husband” and his option “divorce.” This was no small decision.
What were his options, exactly. If Joseph, wanting to remain faithful to the law, did divorce her, what would that look like? Joseph would take this situation before the proper authorities, at the very least it would mean public disgrace for Mary and the child for the rest of their lives. If Joseph wanted to press the issue and demand that the law take its course, well, Deuteronomy 22 details what should be done in such a case. If a woman was found to be promiscuous before marriage, “she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and stoned. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house” (Deut 22:21).
Realize the implications of these actions. If the law was pressed and Mary was killed, keep in mind that her child would be killed also. Jesus would have been killed in the womb. Even if spared from death but divorced from Joseph, then the prophesies would not be fulfilled that say the Messiah would come from the line of David – because it is through Joseph that this prophecy would be fulfilled.
All this weighed heavy on Joseph’s mind as he likely struggled for sleep that night. How could she have broken our marriage promises? How could she have been unfaithful? I know what the law says, but I care about her – I love her – and don’t want it to come to that.
It’s the same conundrum – so to speak – that God is in regarding sinful people like you and me. And the Bible even uses the same kind of language to describe it. God gave his covenant, his promise, to bring Israel to himself and make them his treasured possession (Ex 19:4-6). And the Israelites made their promise to do everything the Lord has said (Ex 19:8). Believers are even called the “bride” of Christ (Is 62:5). It’s a beautiful and loving relationship between God and his people. But when that relationship is broken, when we are unfaithful to God, our groom, and unite ourselves with all kinds of other desires – addictions, wealth, family, etc. – then the language of the Bible paints a very revolting picture. “They defiled themselves by what they did; by their deeds they prostituted themselves” (Ps 106:29).
What is God to do with us sinners, found to be unfaithful – breaking the marriage covenant that God established with us, breaking the loving relationship he showered upon us. What is God to do? The law of his word is very clear. “The one who sins is the one who will die” (Ez 18:20). “The wages of sin is death” (Rm 6:23). That is every single one of us. There is not a one who has remained faithful to God in action and word and thought. We have been unfaithful, and the law of God is clear: Separation from God and disgraced; death (yes physical, but also spiritual); and just punishment for all our wrongs in hell. Just as the punishment for Mary would have been a very ugly picture – so God’s law paints a very ugly picture for you and me.
But there was another option. There was another option that allowed God to remain righteous – faithful to his law – while also allowing his love and mercy to shine through. That option is Jesus. “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). Jesus literally means, “He saves!”
Our names have meanings too. Benjamin means, “son of my right hand.” But our names typically have meanings in other languages. Benjamin is Hebrew, and we don’t speak Hebrew. “Jesus” his Greek name, or “Joshua” his Hebrew name, means “he saves” in the language that people spoke. So, when Mary calls little Jesus in for dinner, her neighbors literally hear, “He saves! He saves! It’s time to eat.” And when Joseph calls Jesus to help him in the workshop, his customers literally hear, “He saves! Come and help me.”
God’s option for all people was not to treat us as our sins deserve, but to save us – to be gracious while still upholding his law. Sin must be punished. There’s no sweeping it under the rug. No dismissing it like it wasn’t a big deal. No allowing it to remain because God is holy. And to be holy means he cannot tolerate sin. If God simply excused sin in any way, then he would no longer be holy. And God can’t be something he’s not. So, God punished sins rightly upon the cross where Jesus, who saves, suffered the punishment in your place and in my place. He suffered the condemnation of hell, separation from God, and physical death to rightly pay the wages of sin. Not only did he take away your sins, but he also gave you his perfection, his righteousness, so that you can now stand in the presence of a holy God. So that right now you are perfect! Despite any unfaithfulness, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins” (1 Jn 1:9). God remains faithful and does not divorce you (2 Tim 2:13).
It’s the perfect option. God remains faithful to his law, yet forgives the lawless. And now he establishes a new marriage covenant with you – a covenant of blood. By the blood of Jesus, who saves, you are forgiven and declared faithful to the law. By the blood of Jesus, who saves, you are covered with robes of righteousness. By the blood of Jesus, who saves, there is no more shame for your sins – no more disgrace in God’s eyes.
Joseph was considering an option like this too. An option by which he could remain faithful to the law, yet graciously spare Mary from public disgrace. “He had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Mt 1:19). But God was bringing about much bigger things. Not just the faithfulness and mercy of one man, but the faithfulness and mercy of all mankind. God intervened by revealing through an angel what he was working all along. “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:20-21).
The angel reminded Joseph that he was a descendant of kings. Starting this night, he would act as one of David’s line again: he would care for the promised Son who would reign on David’s throne. God had come to save his people, just as he promised. He would do it through the child in Mary’s womb. Joseph believed the promises of God kept in Christ and named the child, “He saves,” knowing full well he was “God with us” (Immanuel).