Matthew 1:18-25 (7-6 BC)
The penalty for adultery according to the Old Testament was death, and God’s not embarrassed or ashamed about that, one bit.
A couple of things to bear in mind, then, before we worry over how we feel about it:
First, believers didn’t stop having that as a law because we became enlightened, we stopped having that as a law because when Christ came – 2,000 years ago – the old covenant penal code was, explicitly, at Jesus’ orders, done away with (e.g. John 8:1-11).
As Tim Keller said,
“In the Old Testament things like adultery or incest were punishable with civil sanctions like execution. This is because at that time God’s people existed in the form of a nation-state and so all sins had civil penalties.
But in the New Testament the people of God are an assembly of churches all over the world, living under many different governments. The church is not a civil government, and so sins are dealt with by exhortation and, at worst, exclusion from membership.”*
Secondly, the reason the punishment was so harsh is that adultery really is a very big deal. Why?
- It destroys the picture of the relationship between God and his people, which marriage is designed to reflect, and therefore to provide inspiration for and take inspiration from.
i.e. it can be a direct provocation for people turning away from gospel truth.
- It threatens the long-term mental and emotional well-being of children.
- It threatens the long-term mental and emotional well-being of both perpetrators and victims.
When the actions of Person A threaten the eternal destiny of Person B, Person A is doing the worst thing that it is possible to do. That’s why unrepentant sin – under the new covenant – is punishable by removing someone from church membership and treating them as we would treat a non-Christian (i.e. with great kindness, with the gospel, but not talking to them as if they were Christians and being wary of getting too close to them, emotionally).
Deuteronomy 22:13-30 contains laws for the punishment of sexual offenders, including death for adultery. By the time of Jesus’ birth, most of Jewish society was not treating adultery as a capital crime. Instead, they were invoking Deuteronomy 24:1, which permitted divorce on the grounds of finding “something indecent” (presumed to be sexual indecency as the Hebrew word translated ‘indecent’ is usually translated ‘nakedness’).
The mechanism for convicting someone of the capital crime as per Deuteronomy 22 was a public trial, whereas the process in Deuteronomy 24 was a private one. It may have been that some adulterers were subjected to the public trial, but were not punished beyond being divorced (combining the regulations of Deuteronomy 22 and 24). Hence the phrase, “did not want to expose her to public disgrace” in Matthew 1:19.
So Joseph, who up to that point had not heard from an angel, quite understandably didn’t believe what Mary was telling him, but remarkably – while convinced his betrothed wife was unfaithful and a liar – did NOT want to humiliate her.
That’s when God stepped in and confirmed to Joseph what Mary had already told him: that she was chaste, and that she really was going to give birth to the Son of God.
Oh to have been a fly on the wall at THAT conversation.
Jesus, it seems, was to be brought up by two grace-filled, godly and humble people.
Ask God to help you treat those who sin against you, in the way that Joseph planned to treat Mary, when he thought she had betrayed and lied to him.*