Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly. –Matthew 1:18-19
The key thing to note about Joseph’s character is in verse 19. The text says that Joseph was “a righteous man.” A righteous person in Matthew’s gospel is one who has an obedient trust in the promises of God revealed in the Old Testament. A righteous person cares about what God says. He trusts what God says, and so he obeys what God says. That was Joseph.
But Joseph was faced with a crisis. He found himself engaged to a woman who was pregnant. You might not think of it as a crisis, given the way engagement works in our culture. In our culture, you can enter in and out of an engagement pretty easily. You can get engaged, not set a date, and be engaged indefinitely if you want to. Or you can get engaged on Saturday and break it off on Sunday if you’d rather do that. There’s no obligation to marry legally, so one or both fiancés can end it whenever they want.
But that’s not how engagement worked in the first century among Palestinian Jews. The engaged state involved more of a commitment than ours does. The engaged state was more like our married state before consummation.
I recently officiated a wedding of a young couple. Right after the ceremony was over, the couple met me at the front of the sanctuary to sign their marriage license. A photographer was there along with a couple of witnesses as we signed that piece of paper. Once we handed over that signed piece of paper to the state, they were in a binding legal covenant. Their relationship and obligation to one another had fundamentally changed, even though their union was not yet consummated. In the hours between the ceremony and the honeymoon, they were in an unconsummated legal covenant with one another. At that point, it would have taken a legal procedure to break the union. Why? Because they had already signed the dotted line.
That’s what the entire engagement was like among Jews in Joseph and Mary’s time. The difference for them was that this obligated, engaged state didn’t last a few hours. It lasted for about a year. Mary and Joseph had already signed the dotted line (as it were), and they were just waiting for the consummation. And so for a woman to become pregnant by another man during the engagement, that was legally equivalent to adultery. And so to break that “engagement” required a divorce. Have you ever wondered why so many translations say that Joseph wished to “divorce” Mary even though they were only engaged at that point? This is why. Their engagement was an unconsummated legal covenant.
So when Mary was found to be pregnant, this was a crisis—both for her and for Joseph. It meant that she was guilty of adultery. It meant that he couldn’t marry her. It meant that by rights he must divorce her. Joseph was righteous in his thinking on this. But it wasn’t just Joseph’s willingness to follow the law that shows his character. The text says that Joseph desired to divorce her “quietly” or “secretly.” What’s so righteous about that?
The expectation in that day was that a man had the right to publicly expose a philandering wife—to subject her to open shame and to demand punishment (Deut. 22:13-21, 23-24; cf. Col. 2:15). But Joseph didn’t do that. The evidence in her womb seemed to say that he had to divorce her. Nevertheless, he didn’t want to humiliate her and exact justice. Joseph wasn’t the kind of guy who was prideful. He wasn’t the kind of guy who needed to save face or to triumph over the woman who had humiliated him with another man. He determined to just let it go quietly. There would be no marriage, but neither would there be retribution.
What does it look like to be a righteous person? In Joseph’s case, it looks like a guy who is conscientious about God’s law but who is also conscientious about grace. So let’s take a lesson from Joseph on this one. Being a righteous person is not only obeying God’s law. It’s obeying God’s grace. Do the people who know you think of you as a righteous person? If so, is it because you’re good at public religious performance? Or is it because you love extravagantly? That you never take retribution out on anyone—even when they deserve it? That you live your life as if vengeance belongs to God and not to you?
Joseph does not yet understand the situation, but even so he still shows the character of a righteous man. He will not humiliate this woman who had apparently humiliated him. He was a different kind of guy. This is the kind of guy you want to listen to if he tells you that his boy is Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true king.