“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, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream …” ~ Matthew 1:18-20
As I read these familiar words this Christmas season, a phrase jumped out at me: “when he had considered this.” Look at that simple word: “when.” Another translation uses the word “after.” Do you see the progression? Mary hears the angel’s announcement. She becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Does Joseph know about the divine visitor? Evidently not. Does he understand what has happened to his betrothed? Definitely not.
Can you imagine his devastation? Sense of betrayal? Grief?
So he makes a hard choice. He is a righteous man. A good man. He must love Mary, because although he doesn’t feel he can wed her, he doesn’t want her punished. He doesn’t even want her disgraced. He plans instead to send her away secretly – perhaps hoping the gossip about her shame won’t follow her and she can start a new life somewhere else.
ONLY THEN – “when he had considered this” – did an angel of the Lord appear to him in a dream.
Why did God wait so long? God could have spared him all the agony. All the decision-making. Joseph was clearly willing to be obedient to the will of God: as soon as the angel gave him the news, he promptly obeyed; no questions asked. There’s no reason to think he wouldn’t have obeyed had God let him in on the good news at the same time the angel first came to Mary. Instead, God let him suffer and struggle through the issue without the most important fact in his possession – that the baby was God’s Son. Why did God wait?
I believe God waited because he wanted to prove Joseph’s character. You can see it there: “Joseph, being a righteous man …” God knew Joseph’s heart, but he wanted to demonstrate it to the world – most especially, to Mary. So he withheld the details and let Joseph work through the issue on his own.
Wasn’t this hard on Mary? Yes, in a way. She must have grieved and been frightened about what would happen to her. But it also gave her the opportunity to see her future husband in his moment of greatest crisis. And what did she see? Someone who sought to protect her even when all the facts seemed to say she was an adulteress. Someone who wanted to give her and her unborn child a secure future, even though the child was not his. Someone who refused to publicly denounce her to defend his own honor.
Someone she could trust. Someone she could rely on. Someone she could love.
Then, “when he had considered this,” the angel came with the missing link “and Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife” (v. 24). Bethlehem was right around the corner, but the baby Jesus would be safe. He would be loved. He would be cherished. Mary could give birth with that confidence in her heart. Joseph had proven himself to her; she could trust this righteous, loving, gentle man.
Remember this story when next you struggle with a difficult decision and it seems as if God may not be giving you the guidance you need. He may choose that time to test and prove your character, both to yourself and to others. Because decisions are never just about what we do. They show the truth about who we are.