Why Did an Angel Speak to Joseph about Mary and Jesus?

Candice Lucey

Contributing Writer
Published: Dec 14, 2022
Why Did an Angel Speak to Joseph about Mary and Jesus?

We possess few details about Joseph, but that angelic spotlight highlights the nature of a man favored by the Lord to receive such a visit and such an invitation. He was not vengeful or violent; his character was peaceful, generous, and merciful. He obeyed God.

In 21st-century America, many unmarried women give birth without attracting the cruelty and condemnation of society. A woman who has become pregnant by someone other than her fiancé can expect to face criticism but not to be shunned or threatened with death-by-stoning.

Her jilted fiancé would be justified if he chose to leave, and Joseph believed he would be justified to separate from Mary. That was his plan before an angel visited him with strange and wonderful news.

What Did the Angel Tell Joseph?

“Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).

Don’t be afraid: the very words spoken to Mary by the Angel Gabriel. Why would they have been afraid of a heavenly being? As one writer puts it, a visit from an angel was extraordinary. “The biblical authors’ use of angelos when recounting angelic appearances indicates that a chief task of these supernatural creatures is to bring a message from on high.”

Even before Christ’s birth was proclaimed to shepherds, three people in the preceding year are known to have heard from angels: Zechariah, Joseph, and Mary.

Each person heard a very special but also unbelievable message. The news would have been hard to swallow if a mere man had delivered it. But a “supernatural” being delivered a supernatural message.

The angel’s message to Joseph is obvious at one level. Stay with Mary; this is a special child. She did not commit adultery. At a deeper level, he also connected Joseph with an Old Testament prophecy by addressing him as the “son of David.”

Joseph’s father was Jacob, according to Matthew 1:16, and he was descended from the line of David.

Israel was expecting their Savior to be “a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 33:15). The angel affirmed his own message by adding this verbal seal of authenticity.

The silence of heaven was broken, not to foreshadow an event to come centuries in the future but very soon. This surprising emissary delivered a shocking wake-up call that salvation was imminent.

For an ordinary man to believe and obey, no wonder, the Lord sent an angel with the invitation. He was asking a lot of Joseph — credulity, and sacrifice. Give up the right to be the father of Mary’s first child and choose his name.

Face the suspicions of a society, which might have wondered whether Mary had been faithful or if Joseph and Mary had behaved sinfully before their marriage. Courageously bear the responsibility of raising his own Savior.

What Did Joseph Do?

Joseph Benson explains that Jewish marriage began with “a solemn promise of marriage, made by the parties to each other, before witnesses, to be accomplished at such a distance of time as they agreed upon.”

This was a serious commitment before the actual marriage took place. “The parties had hereby time to think seriously of the great change they were soon to make in their lives and to seek unto God for his blessing upon them” (Ibid.).

If Mary was lying about her immaculate conception in order to cover her sin, her reasoning was understandable since adultery was a crime punishable by death (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:23-24).

Matthew 1:18 suggests that Joseph had heard the story: “it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant from the Holy Spirit.”

Is the verse saying that he had heard a rumor and believed it was a lie or that Mary might have been suffering from a mental breakdown of some kind?

Benson asserted that Mary almost certainly would have told her friends that she had been impregnated by the Holy Spirit, and they, “considering her great piety, and the testimony borne by her cousin Elizabeth, probably, fully believed her. But certainly, she had not mentioned it to Joseph, as despairing, perhaps, of his giving credit to what was so improbable or judging it better to commit the matter to God.”

We learn that Joseph was “a just man and unwilling to put her to shame” (Matthew 1:19), so he was planning to divorce Mary.

He would do it quietly so as to preserve her from being ostracized by their community and even protect her and her unborn child from death. He did not need an angel to convince him to behave with a generous heart.

God was calling him to more than mercy, but in answer to the angel’s message, Joseph obeyed. Think of the disciples when Jesus called them.

They did not turn and say, “I would rather keep fishing” or “come with you where?” They went. God chose an earthly father for Jesus, one who would immediately obey.

He was a “just” man who was prepared to turn 180 degrees away from a firm and kind-hearted plan and take on a daunting role, believing in the Lord’s word spoken through Scripture long ago and through an angelic messenger in his dream.

Giving and Receiving Gifts

God knew Joseph’s heart and how Mary’s fiancé would respond to the angel’s message. We possess few details about Joseph, but that angelic spotlight highlights the nature of a man favored by the Lord to receive such a visit and such an invitation. He was not vengeful or violent; his character was peaceful, generous, and merciful. He obeyed God.

We also learn the nature of a “gift” in the scriptural sense. The angel’s visit was a gift, perhaps reminding Joseph every time he wondered about his child that Jesus was their Savior. J.C. Ryle tells us that “the name Jesus means ‘Savior.’ It is the same name as Joshua in the Old Testament.”

Joseph would have awoken from his dream and realized who Jesus was and what a weighty privilege he was receiving. This child would be The Christ. 

We are encouraged by Joseph’s obedience also to obey, to remember the validity of God’s Good News, and to remember his love when we enter dark times.

“Those who are careful to keep a good conscience may cheerfully trust God with the keeping of their good name” (Benson). We certainly remember Joseph.

We learn from Joseph what it means to accept a gift from God and what a real gift is. Our Lord is concerned less with our bellies and more with our souls. “Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, [...] for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2).

The gift, as far as Jesus saw it, was an opportunity to restore our relationship with the Father, and it was also the ultimate instance of obedience to God. The gift was faith, knowing God would resurrect Jesus and redeem humanity.

Sending an angel perhaps helped Joseph recognize the solemnity of this gift he was about to receive with faith and joy rather than resignation.

God Had to Send an Angel

As Matthew Henry put it, “God's time to come with instruction to his people is when they are at a loss. Divine comforts most delight the soul when under the pressure of perplexed thoughts.” Could any man’s thoughts have been more perplexed than Joseph’s?

God asked a lot of him, but he gave Joseph a great deal more. The entire scene sounds so ordinary now thanks to simplified and sentimental Nativity plays, yet the Nativity is anything but ordinary.

This is why the Lord sent an angel to certify the message and convince the listener instantly. Christians can pray that the hearts of listeners, hearing the angel’s news for the first time, will be open to the supernatural splendor of God’s plan, that they will wake up from their dreamlike state into the reality of Christ’s love for them.

We can pray for Christian hearts to warm once again to the wonder that the Lord employs ordinary people in his supernatural work of reviving sinners from death through the birth of his Son.

For further reading: 

Did Mary and Joseph Really Stay in a Cave?

What Was the Significance of the Angels at Christmas?

How Can Mary and Joseph's Faithfulness Encourage Us This Christmas?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/rudall30

Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.