Through the Bible: Matthew 1:18-25

We are going through Tatian’s Diatessaron. It is a harmony of the four Gospels put together in the mid-second centuary. Today we begin section II, which is pulled from Matthew 1. The introduction mentions that Tatian skipped the genealogies in Matthew and Luke (par. 11,13), so this section begins with verse 18 of Matthew 1.

Today, I will be copying the translation of the Diatessaron right into the post with my usual updates to modern English. The translation is 120 years old.

Righteousness

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah happened this way: In the time when his mother was given in marriage to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband was a just man and did not wish to expose her. He purposed to put her away secretly.

Matthew, who wrote this, was an apostle. The apostles were given the duty of establishing churches and teaching those churches the faith that was entrusted to them by Jesus. On top of this, we believe that the Holy Spirit guided the apostles in this duty. It is for this reason that the early churches gathered up every writing that could reasonably be thought to have been written by an apostle. One of the most respected writers of the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons, wrote:

We have learned from no others the plan of our salvation than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they at one time proclaimed in public and at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures to be the ground and pillar of our faith. It is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed perfect knowledge … for after our Lord rose from the dead, they were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down, were filled with everything, and had perfect knowledge. They departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things from God to us. (Against Heresies, Bk. III, ch. 1, par. 1)

I make this point about the apostles because there is a very key statement in the passage we are looking at: “Joseph … was a just man.”

Joseph had compassion on Mary. If he had told the village that Mary was pregnant, she could have been stoned (Deut. 22:23-27). Truly, Joseph’s decision was a merciful one.

But we do not always attribute mercy to God. There are teachers, and they are not few, who would have us believe that the only righteous thing to do is to strictly adhere to what we read in the Bible, even if it seems unloving. Such teachers search the Scriptures to find every law they can and apply it in the strictest fashion. An example I have seen often over my years as a Christian, perhaps because of the circles I have traveled in, is divorce and remarriage. There are churches who will ask a remarried couple, who are newly come to Christ, to separate because remarriage is forbidden in the Bible (e.g., Matt. 19:7-9). They will do this even if there are small children in the family and even if the remarriage happened while the couple were not Christians.

Surely we can agree that the abundance of divorces in the church today are a terrible thing, and this is not God’s will. We see in this passage, however, that cruelly applying the law of God without regard for people is not God’s will, either.

It is the Holy Spirit who calls Joseph’s action, in protecting Mary, “just,” or righteous. (The Greek word that Bibles translates as “just” or “righteous” is the same word.) It was a righteous act for Joseph to avoid applying the law of Moses given in Deuteronomy 22 and to break his engagement with Mary privately.

Jesus, who as the Word of God (Jn. 1:1-3) was the giver of the Law, showed that Joseph’s actions were right by his own actions when he was presented with a woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11). (Note that in that passage, the Pharisees did not bring him the man caught in adultery as well. You can’t catch a woman in the act of adultery without catching the man as well.)

I took so many words to make this point because it is important. We are ministers of a new covenant, and that covenant relies on the Spirit and not the letter (2 Cor. 3:6). We do not forsake the letter, but we apply it spiritually and in love, not merely intellectually.

Angelic Intervention

When he thought of [putting her away], the messenger of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said to him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife, for that which is begotten in her is of the Holy Spirit. She shall bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

Again, the Greek word angelos means messenger, not specifically angel, and is used of humans in several places (e.g., Matt. 11:10 & Mark 1:2 regarding John the Baptist). This, of course, is a heavenly messenger, but “messenger” is the correct word to use, not angel.

All this was so that the saying from the Lord by the prophet might be fulfilled: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,” which, being interpreted, [means] “with us is our God.”

We looked at the divinity of Jesus on April 23.

When Joseph arose from his sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, took his wife, and did not know her until she birthed her firstborn son.

Catholics and Orthodox are going to fuss at me for this, but this passage does away with the idea that Mary was “ever virgin.” Mary was most blessed among women because God chose her to birth his Son on earth. If God has such favor towards her, then we should, too. It was prophesied that “all generations” would call her blessed (Luke 1:48). That is all awesome, but to slowly turn her into some kind of demi-goddess is idolatry. It began with “ever virgin,” and it progressed to a sinless life, a sinless birth (“immaculate conception”), and a bodily assumption into heaven (Munificentissimus Deus). We should call Mary blessed, not transform her into a second sinless person.

See you in the next post!

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