Formations 12.18.2016: A Glimpse of Holiness

Matthew 1:18-25

Angels almost always appear on the biblical scene saying, “Don’t be afraid.” And they are indeed frightening creatures, at least in the book of Revelation and other apocalyptic writings. Our culture has somewhere gotten the idea that angels are a sentimental combination of schoolgirls in tinsel halos and the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio. In fact, they are far more imposing.

In the Bible, angels are frightening because they are mediators of the holy. They come from the throne of God reflecting a holiness that both attracts and frightens us. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that angels often provoke fear within the mortals who meet them. In our finitude, we recoil in dread from such transcendence.

When we lived in Louisville, my wife Connie worked at a childcare center where one of the dads was a firefighter. Every so often he would come to visit the children, make friends with them, and explain about all his gear. Ronell would put on one piece of equipment at time, talking and telling stories, until finally he put on his mask and was entirely hidden beneath his protective suit.

He did all this for many years, even after his own stepdaughter was no longer in preschool, because he knew how children think. He knew that being caught in a fire is scary. It is dark and smoky and unbelievably loud. It’s natural for children to find their favorite hiding spot and stay put. In that situation, a firefighter is just one more thing to be afraid of: he doesn’t even look human under all that gear, and his voice, muffled by his breathing apparatus, just makes him even more frightening.

I don’t know if Ronell ever personally had to go into a fire after a frightened child or if he had merely heard enough stories from the men and women he served with to know how heart-wrenching it is to lose a child because they were afraid of the person who had come to rescue them. I know that the kids at Walnut Street Child Care Center were never afraid of Mr. Ronell. If they ever needed him, that might mean the difference between life and death.

When angels show up in the biblical story, they are usually fearsome creatures. But they are also often far less threatening than the situation that called for their presence. It seems to be a principle in Scripture that the harder the task, the clearer the divine call. I don’t need an angel to tell me to love God, tell the truth, and treat other people with kindness; the Bible by itself is clear enough for that. But when a man is commanded to go through with his marriage even though God has chosen to bring the Son of God into the world through his fiancée…well, an angelic vision might be in order.

Life can be scary: especially when God asks us to do something big or calls us to believe something impossible. So much of our world is dark, loud, and tinged with smoke. There are times when we need a glimpse of holiness to see us through. When it comes, the worst thing we can do is run from it.

“Don’t be afraid.”

Discussion

• How do you think Joseph felt to be visited by an angel?
• What would be more frightening to you: the visit of the angel or the commandment the angel issued?
• When have you been afraid to give yourself wholeheartedly to God’s plan?
• How can Joseph serve as a role model when faithfulness is a struggle?

Reference Shelf

Jewish Beliefs about Angels

Jewish angelology developed greatly during the late B.C.E. period and most of the numerous Jewish apocalypses written then featured angels in prominent roles. Except within the Book of Daniel, angels were never named in the OT; but Michael, Gabriel, and Uriel were named in 1 Enoch 9:1 and Raphael appeared in Tob 3:17. These four are described as archangels, and a hierarchy of angels is elsewhere described (1 Enoch 90:21). The Qumran scrolls (1QM 15:14) also tell of a fearsome army of angels which will lead God’s people to victory in the final battle against the forces of evil. All of this suggests a development in Jewish thought. Whereas in the OT angels had little significance apart from their role as God’s messengers or agents, many late B.C.E. writers saw them as important figures in an of themselves. This development is usually attributed to Persian influence in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., but the extent of Persian influence upon Jewish angelology has recently been challenged….

Angels appear in the NT, but are most prominent in Matthew, Luke–Acts, Hebrews, and Revelation. They function in much the same fashion as their counterparts in the OT and late B.C.E. writings.

Joseph L. Trafton, “Angel,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 29–30.

Matthew’s Portrayal of Joseph

Matthew 1:18-25 should probably be seen as something of an apologetical tale explaining how Jesus could be born of Mary and not of Joseph, and yet still be in the Davidic line. R. Brown points out that Matthew 1 is about who and how (i.e., the virginal conception), while Matthew 2 is also about where and whence.

With the mention of Mary in the genealogy, as well as other women, one might have expected a focus on Mary in what follows in Matthew 1:18-25, but in fact Matthew goes on to focus almost entirely on Joseph. Here we note that only Joseph other than Jesus in this Gospel is given the title “son of David.” It is through Joseph and the naming of his son that Jesus becomes Son of David. The portrayal of Joseph is important in several ways. Joseph will be portrayed as a son of David caught between a rock and a hard place, more particularly between the Law, as he is a righteous, law-abiding Jew, and his love for Mary. The situation is not unlike the way Solomon is portrayed when it came to making wise decisions about important, and in some cases life and death, matters (see, e.g., 1 Kgs 3).

In other words, Joseph will be portrayed as a wise man before we even hear about the wise men or magi as he responds to the heavenly dreams and does the right thing repeatedly. This sets the tone and stage for the portrayal of Jesus himself as sage and indeed as the embodiment of Wisdom, Immanuel. Notice how Joseph as the wise father who is obedient to the heavenly directions initiates actions three times after being instructed by an angel in a dream (1:24; 2:13; 2:19). The reception of the dreams and the guidance should not be taken to indicate that Joseph was otherwise dense, as if without divine intervention he would have done something stupid. To the contrary, Joseph is depicted as a good Jew following the Law, who was spiritually open enough to accept correction and direction when he misunderstood what God and the Law required of him. Again, he is son of David (i.e., one like Solomon) who provides something of a pattern for his own adopted Son of David—Jesus.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 43–44.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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