Jesus Christ: A Stumbling Block from His Conception
The Faith of Joseph in Matthew 1:18–25
The Christmas season tends to sentimentalize the birth of Jesus. We conflate our general, common joy over the birth of any child into the miracle of the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity.
Or, we take the good news of Jesus’ birth for granted in a way that downplays the scandal it was for those who were there for it all. For them, Jesus was a stumbling block to faith, even from his conception.
A Stumbling Block to Joseph’s Faith
A few weeks ago, I began a sermon series through the Gospel according to Matthew. Through the first two chapters, the one observation that stood out to me personally was the struggle of Joseph over his betrothed wife’s pregnancy:
 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. (Matt. 1:18–19)
By all outward appearances, the only reasonable explanation for Mary’s pregnancy is that she had been unfaithful to him. It is common for modern people to dismiss the early church’s belief in the virgin birth of Jesus on the basis that ancient people didn’t have the biological knowledge that we have now. If they did, the argument goes, they would not have believed that a virgin could conceive and give birth to a child.
But this argument flies in the face of the text actually tells us. Joseph may not have understood terminology like sperm, egg, and zygote, but he resolved to divorce Mary because he knew very well that women get pregnant through one method, and one method only. He intended to divorce her because he was as convinced that a virgin could not conceive and bear a child as the most thoroughgoing skeptic is today.
Jesus has been a stumbling block from his conception.
Faith Seeking Understanding
Faith in Jesus is still a stumbling block. Faith in Jesus is not rational or reasonable in the sense of lining up with common expectations or naturalistic explanations. Faith in Jesus requires believing in God’s freedom “to work without, above, and against [ordinary means], at his pleasure” (WCF 5.3).
Still, this does not mean that faith in Jesus is irrational and unreasonable. Faith in Jesus is entirely rational and reasonable; however, our starting point must be faith in God’s word. If we start from what we know about this world and try to reason our way up to God, we will never reach him, and we ultimately will reject Jesus—much as Joseph almost did.
If, however, we start with God’s word, and try to understand the world around us in light of what God has said, then everything becomes clear: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). Anselm of Canterbury (1093–1109 AD) called this approach fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding.”
The Need for God’s Revelation
In Joseph’s case, faith required revelation. Once God explained the reality of Mary’s situation (“that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”; Matt. 1:20), Joseph wasted no time in believing and obeying: “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (Matt. 1:24–25).
Judged by outward appearances, Joseph would have been justified to divorce Mary. Judged by God’s revelation, Joseph made the faithful choice by taking Mary as his wife, and adopting Jesus as his son. By this adoption, Joseph conferred upon Jesus the legal status of lawful heir to the throne of David (Matt. 1:1–17).
We too need God’s word to tell us who Jesus is, because we would never intuitively guess at the truth. We need God’s word to announce that Jesus is not only the royal heir to David’s throne (Matt. 1:1), but the Word made flesh (John 1:1, 14), and even that he is true God and eternal life (1 John 5:20). These are not simple doctrines to understand, so that we must apply all of our intellectual efforts to make sense of them. But, it is our faith that must seek understanding, not our understanding trying to reason our way blindly to faith.
God has identified who Jesus is by his word to us, just as he did to Joseph. While Joseph misunderstood the situation when he judged it by outward appearances, he believed and obeyed when God explained to him the truth.
Jesus is a stumbling block to all those who judge him according to outward appearances. But, now that God has declared the truth about Jesus in the Bible, will you follow in Joseph’s footsteps of faith? Will you believe him for salvation, and obey him as your king?
(Listen to/watch/read my sermon on this passage here. Download the sermon notes on this passage here.)