Did Joseph Really See an Angel?

Title: Did Joseph Really See an Angel?

Text: Matthew 1:18-25

Time: December 15th, 2011

One of the great benefits of the Christmas season is we can explore all the many different Nativity themes found in the Bible. I love the holiday season because it gives me an excuse to teach and preach about the birth of the Lord Jesus in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. There are some pastors, sadly, who actually don’t enjoy the Christmas season, because they claim they are expected to come up with fresh messages on the old familiar Nativity topic – which they find difficult to do. But I’m just the opposite. I love to dig around the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in order to find some different angle on Christmas, some theme that hasn’t been explored thoroughly, so that I might preach on that. So I rather enjoy digging in to the accounts of the birth of Jesus because there is so much there that needs to be mined for all the truth it contains. So from that perspective, let’s dig into another issue involving the first Christmas account found in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter one (read). I’d like to focus on one specific passage, Matthew 1:20-21, 24, “But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’. . . When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” Now for the longest time I as a Christian I was under the impression that Joseph, husband of Mary and earthly, human father of Jesus, had encountered an angel – or had an angelic visitation that told him what to do. I later learned that the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. Now my question is, is there a difference between really seeing an angel and simply dreaming you saw one? Or put another way, is there a difference between having an angel appear to you and having an angel in a dream appear to you? Well, clearly there is a difference. For example, if someone came up to me all excited and said, “I just had an angel appear to me and tell me something!” If I asked further and said, “Where did this angel appear to you?” And if they responded, “In my dream last night,” clearly, it would be less impressive than if an angel had really appeared to the person while he was awake. Why? Because all kinds of things pop into our heads during dreams, some pretty strange, bizarre and mysterious. But if we were to have something appear while we are fully awake, such as an angel, like, for example, what the shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem encountered with the angels in Luke 2 – that would be truly impressive and special. But for an angel to appear in a dream? That might seem a little under whelming. But is it? What really happened to Joseph? Let’s look at what happened to poor Joseph that night which convinced him to marry Mary. I’m not calling into question the reality of the vision, I’m just asking questions about it that might help us all understand our Christmas faith better.

First, Joseph might have had more like a vision than a dream. Matthew 1:20, “But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’” Once again I was snooping around in the Greek New Testament, rereading the familiar Nativity accounts found in Matthew and Luke, when I discovered that the little phrase that is usually translated “in a dream” in most English Bible translations begins with the preposition kata in Greek, not en or “in.” Kata means “according to,” so a literal rendering is, “according to a dream,” a little awkward, but it could fit. But maybe kata was used and not en to mean something slightly different. So it’s possible that Joseph actually had an angelic appearance or vision that was like a dream or similar to a dream, but really wasn’t a dream, but instead was really an appearance. That would make what Joseph experienced a real angelic vision, not just a subjective dream in the night. Now the most obvious problem with this interpretation is in verse 24 it says, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him.” That would seem to imply that he was sleeping and that he really was dreaming when he saw the angelic vision – and so the angel would have appeared to him in a dream, not outside of dreaming. This problem would tend to weigh against the interpretation I just gave, although it could still be true, if we think of Joseph in that state of sleep – half asleep and half awake. You’ve probably all experienced sleep walking or sleeping talking, where you actually talked with someone or walked about the house, all while you were really still asleep. Now if you could talk or walk, were you really asleep? Not fully asleep, at least not asleep enough to be fully, as they say, “out of it.” So, if you can talk and carry on a conversation, are you really asleep? If you can walk and go down to the kitchen and grab a snack and eat it and then climb back into back, where you really asleep after all during that time? Or were you really half-asleep and half-awake? When I was a small boy I’ve been told that I could sleep walk and go back to bed without remembering anything. Now, was I really asleep or was I mostly asleep and a little awake? That could be debated back and forth, but maybe Joseph was half awake and half asleep. If so, maybe he really did encounter a true angelic visitation and it all seemed like a dream to him when he woke up fully. Or maybe Joseph had a real angel encounter, a vision by his bedside like Mary, but then afterwards fell into a deep sleep, only later waking up as verse 24 says. So we can’t totally rule out because of the Greek sentence construction that Joseph really saw an angel, not just dreamed he saw an angel. But let’s look at another possibility.

Second, maybe Joseph really did dream he saw and heard an angel. Matthew 1:18, “But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’” Of course, there’s always the possibility that Joseph really did have an angel appear to him in a dream, like most Bible translations put it. After all, in the Greek, the preposition kata can and is translated, “in,” by most New Testament translators in this passage for the phrase, “in a dream.” So it could be, probably is, that Joseph saw the angel in a dream. But then that raises the question, “Did Joseph dream that he saw an angel, or did an angel appear to Joseph in a dream?” Do you get the distinction? It’s very important. For example, I don’t know about your dreams, but whenever I dream, sometimes my dreams can be so weird, so strange, really bizarre. It’s possible for people to dream they saw biblical characters like Abraham, Moses, David, John the Baptist, the Apostles, even Jesus. Does that mean the really did? In other words, just because we dream we saw something does that mean we actually saw that something, the real thing? When it says that Joseph saw an angel in his dream, does that mean that Joseph dreamed he saw an angel, like we might dream we saw heaven or dream we see Jesus, for example? I don’t think so. When the passage says that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, I think that means that Joseph was dreaming and the angel broke in and appeared to him. Joseph didn’t dream up an angel, the angel broke into Joseph’s dream with a message – maybe interrupting something Joseph was already dreaming! So the emphasis would have been on the angelic revelation, not Joseph’s dreaming it up. Because if it were simply Joseph dreaming that he saw an angel, like everyone dreams some strange things some times, then I don’t think that would have had the impact it had on Joseph; it wouldn’t have been as powerful and as real as it turned out to be. Joseph didn’t just dream up an angelic appearance, an angel intervened in his dream to command him to marry Mary. That’s a different thing all together. So we see it’s a bit more complicated than just Joseph falling asleep — and thinking or dreaming he saw an angel. No. God revealed something important, something essential to Joseph by means of a dream. It was God who manufactured this dream, not Joseph. We can’t just dismiss it as someone coming up with a wild dream. Joseph didn’t come up with the angelic dream, God visited him with it for a purpose. It’s a good thing that God was able to convince Joseph to go ahead and do his part and marry Mary, because the Christmas Nativity account would be completely different without him. Joseph, in the end, was obedient to God’s plan and purpose for his life. Are you so obedient to God when he presents his plan for your life? Let’s hope so.

Third, either way, God gets his will across if we’ll listen and obey. Matthew 1:20-21, 24, “But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’. . . When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” It doesn’t really matter what Joseph experienced – whether it was an actual angelic appearance or an angel appearing in a dream, the purpose was accomplished either way, because Joseph married Mary and took care of the baby Jesus. That was the whole purpose of the angel’s visit; and he accomplished his mission. God got through to Joseph, changed his mind about Mary, and fulfilled his plan for the Christmas birth of Jesus. God will fulfill his plan for our lives as well, if we’ll stay open to his will, no matter what it is at any given time. Now in the case of Joseph, it took a little bit of effort to bring him around to fulfilling his calling. He didn’t believe or buy into the supernatural miraculous tale told by Mary at first. But eventually God got through to him that he was indeed supposed to go forward with marriage to Mary and that he had an important role to play in the birth and life of the child Jesus. There may be times when God calls us to do something that at first doesn’t sound possible or probable. There may be times when God’s will for our life may even seem crazy. It may go against common sense, or society’s customs or tradition. As we live in an increasingly secular and godless society, we may find God calling us in directions that contradict or conflict with the general population’s will and way. We may be tempted to reject the calling of God if it seems strange to our modern, secular and skeptical ears. But we have to consider that from God’s perspective, the way unbelieving people think and act is strange. As society moves more and more away from God in rebellion, the will of God will seem more strange to modern thinking, but that doesn’t mean we should refuse God’s will or fail to obey him just because what he calls us to do seems strange by modern standards. For example, in modern Europe today, going to church on Sunday is rare, even odd or strange for someone to do. But even so, it’s something a Christian should do, whether he’s misunderstood or not. It took a little while, but finally Joseph came around to doing the right thing. Let’s pray to God that like Joseph we’ll come around to eventually doing the right thing according to God. Let’s pray that we’ll get to the place in our Christian life that it doesn’t take very long for us to believe and follow God’s will. And if it takes an angelic visitation or something supernatural to give us a nudge, let’s pray that God will send that too. Let’s pray.

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