The virgin birth is a doctrine that is not fully accepted within Christian circles today. The liberal wings of various denominations do not see it as an important doctrine. It’s not hard to understand this because it’s something that must be taken by faith. It’s certainly nothing we would be able to verify scientifically, and all experiences in our lives speak against it. Matthew reminds us in Matthew 1:19 that even Joseph had trouble with it. It says, “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” Joseph is called a “just” man.  It seems that to Joseph, “mercy” had to be involved with Justice. Leon Morris says, “Joseph, being just, saw that he was unable to consummate the marriage, but he did not want to be harsh. Perhaps we should say that Joseph being just before God included an element of mercy.”[1]  Augustine, in the 4th Century, had an interesting take on this passage. He writes, “If you alone have knowledge of a sin that any has committed against you, and desire to accuse him thereof before men, you do not herein correct, but rather betray him. But Joseph, being a just man with great mercy, spared his wife in this great crime of which he suspected her. The seeming certainty of her unchastity tormented him, and yet because he alone knew of it, he was willing not to publish it but to send her away privily, seeking rather the benefit than the punishment of the sinner.”[2]

The idea of being “a just man” in Israel during Christ’s day meant that Joseph, although not describing him as perfect, he was an observant Jew. Morgan writes, “He was not only morally upright; he was a man who kept the law of God. But it also meant that he had respect and awe for God’s plan of salvation. We see that in his dealing with Mary. He was not prepared to subject her to any public ridicule. Much less was he prepared to see her possibly tried and stoned for ‘adultery.’ Joseph was a man who was open to the things of God. Indeed, there is one school of thought that has Joseph belonging to a Jewish group called the ‘Anwim’ or ‘poor ones,’ men and women who were devout and committed to living a life of holiness and obedience to the law; Mary, Elizabeth, and Zechariah were thought to be a part of the Anwim as well.”[3]

I can’t help but believe that Joseph had feelings for Mary. He doesn’t want to hurt her. The religious leaders that Christ faced throughout his stay on earth had no such feelings for the woman caught in adultery. They drug her into the public square to shame her. Joseph wasn’t at all like the sect of the Pharisees. Usually, those who live up to their own codes of conduct are often very critical and condemning of others who fail. But Joseph has strict behavior standards for himself and yet is compassionate towards others. Yet, there was no way he could maintain his standards and continue his engagement with Mary. Thus, his intention was to break it off, even though it would cost him personally. It’s often said that Jesus loved the sinners but hated the sin. Like Father like Son doesn’t apply to Jesus and Joseph in the literal sense. Yet, Jesus’ actions towards the adulterer who met with public disgrace at the hands of the religious leaders must have pleased his earthly father.  Micah tells us that God wants three things from us: To live justly (have a strong code of ethical standards), to love mercy (be gracious to sinners), and to walk humbly with your God.

[1] Morris, Leon. 1992. The Gospel according to Matthew. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press.

[2] Thomas Aquinas. 1841. Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected out of the Works of the Fathers: St. Matthew. Edited by John Henry Newman. Vol. 1. Oxford: John Henry Parker.

[3] Morgan, Robert J. 2007. Nelson’s Annual Preacher’s Sourcebook. 2007 Edition. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.